Three people were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of stealing the identities of victims of the Surfside condo collapse just days after the disaster.
Crews were still searching for survivors within the rubble of the collapsed building that left 98 people dead when officials say the suspects posed as survivors to get replacement credit cards, which they used to make purchases worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“For a group of alleged identity thieves, it was a time to make some money,” Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference Wednesday. “They immediately started buying.”
At least seven victims of the Jan. 23 condo collapse were targeted, according to affidavits unsealed following the arrests. Five of them were killed in the collapse, Rundle said.
But officials said they suspect many other Surfside victims may have been affected since authorities quickly realized residents of the building appeared to be targeted just days after the collapse.
“We moved very quickly because we wanted these thefts to stop from a daily basis,” Rundle said.
One victim’s bank account, for example, saw 28 attempted transactions between July 7 and July 9, just two weeks after the disaster. The three are believed to have made at least $45,000 in purchases in what Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called an “exploitation of the dead.”
Betsy Alejandra Cacho-Medina, Kimberly Michelle Johnson, and Rodney Choute were arrested Wednesday on a series of charges that included identity fraud, use of a counterfeit ID, and taking part in an organized scheme to defraud. Prosecutors say they called banks and credit card companies to have replacement cards sent to vacant apartments, where they were able to access unused mailboxes.
in one case, Rundle said, the sister of one victim notified police on July 9 that her sister’s mailing address had been changed, and that multiple wire transfers had been made on her account.
Investigators found one of the cards had been used to buy a $374 pair of sandals. Cacho-Medina allegedly used one card to buy a $1,658 Versace purse. Days later, security footage at a Bloomingdales captured a woman identified as Cacho-Medina spending more than $2,500 under the same victim’s account while wearing the new purse.
“These are very skilled identity thieves,” Rundle said, adding that the suspects used fake driver licenses and vehicle plates to try to evade detection.