NEWARK, New Jersey (AP)—The leader of an identity theft and fraud ring run by Korean immigrants has pleaded guilty in a scheme that federal authorities said operated as a veritable “crime superstore” that reached from northern New Jersey to U.S. territories in the Pacific.
Sang-Hyun “Jimmy” Park admitted in federal court in Newark on Monday that he had helped people fraudulently obtain credit cards, bank accounts and loans using illegally obtained Social Security numbers in a scheme that federal authorities say defrauded various credit card companies, banks and lenders out of about $4 million.
Fifty-three other people—most of them, like Park, Korean immigrants living in New Jersey or New York—were charged in September 2010.
Prosecutors said Park and his co-conspirators operated a scheme to buy Social Security cards from brokers who fraudulently obtained them from Asian immigrants—mostly Chinese nationals—working in American territories, including Guam, American Samoa, and Saipan.
The cards were then resold to Korean immigrants in the territorial U.S. who used them to apply for driver’s licenses in California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada, New York and elsewhere. Several of the defendants then used their U.S. identifications to apply for credit cards. Some used all the credit they obtained to buy luxury goods such as vehicles, designer bags or liquor, some of it to resell.
Park, a 45-year-old native of South Korea, lives in Palisades Park, a town just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan that is home to a large Korean population. He emigrated from Seoul in 1999 to start a business importing raw materials from Central America to manufacture hats in New Jersey, according to his attorney, Christian Fleming.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Park took a $100,000 family loan against his mother’s house in South Korea to keep his business afloat. It had slowed and faltered in the wake of the attacks, largely because of tightened U.S. restrictions on imported goods, Fleming said. Park turned to the illegal enterprise, according to his lawyer, out of desperation to try to repay his debts.
“That’s what led to this,” Fleming said. “He feels a lot of shame and accepts full responsibility, and that’s why he wanted to plead guilty.”
Michael Ward, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark division, and Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, said Park headed a sophisticated criminal enterprise that made millions of dollars in profits and went to great efforts to conceal itself from U.S. authorities.
Park ran the operation by using shell businesses, advertising the sale of U.S. identity documents in local Korean-language newspapers and employing a staff that included identity document brokers, people who worked to increase credit limits and boost scores for customers using the fraudulently obtained credit cards and local merchants who would swipe the cards at their businesses to get banks to transmit them money, according to court documents.
“Sang-Hyun ‘Jimmy’ Park was the head of a New Jersey crime conglomerate which advertised, facilitated and supported a multitude of frauds resulting in staggering economic losses,” Ward said.
The five counts to which Park pleaded guilty could carry up to 70 years in prison when he is sentenced in April.
Another defendant, Ho K. Yu, known as Edmund, also admitted his role in the scheme Monday in Newark federal court. The 59-year-old Tenafly, New Jersey, resident pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud affecting financial institutions. Those counts could carry up to 30 years each.
Prosecutors said Yu fraudulently obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in commercial loans for customers or falsely built up credit scores for them. His attorney, Robert Stahl, said he had entered the business thinking it was a legitimate enterprise to help people obtain credit but continued working there after he found out it was not. Stahl said his client had accepted responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty.
Also Tuesday, 37-year-old Yu-Je Jo, of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, was sentenced in Trenton federal court to two and a half years in prison after pleading guilty in the case.
The U.S. attorney’s office said several other defendants had pleaded guilty to various offenses in the case.