Way back in January 2010, then-Weekling Spencer Kornhaber shared a video where a Newport Beach Police detective displayed the machinery hacker Christopher John Aragon used to forge credit cards based on real names and account numbers stolen off the interwebs. Aragon, 51, of Capistrano Beach, pleaded guilty Monday to leading a crime ring that stole thousands of personal identities, counterfeited credit cards, bought high-end goods with them and resold the products on eBay and craigslist.
He is expected to be sentenced to 25 years in state prison at his Sept. 28 sentencing in Santa Ana.
Between March 29, 2004, and April 15, 2007, Aragon led an eight-member crime ring that included his wife Clara Aragon, 39, also of Capistrano Beach. Hacker Guy Itzak Shitrit, 28, of Miami, Florida, obtained credit card numbers used to encode forged credit cards. Aragon and his co-horts also used credit profiles and personal identifying information of their victims to make fraudulent California driver's licenses, credit cards and gift cards.
They encoded the magnetic strips of the credit and gift cards with stolen account information, and used the cards to purchase high-end merchandise, including designer handbags, jewelry, clothing, and electronics, according to a statement from the Orange County District Attorney's office. Aragon generally had women from his crew purchase high-end goods throughout California and Las Vegas, items which were then resold on eBay and Craigslist.
The scam unraveled on May 12, 2007, when Aragon and Shitrit used fake Visa and American Express cards to buy $13,000 worth of watches, Coach handbags and men's and women's clothing at the Fashion Island Bloomingdale's. When the scan of the magnetic encoding on the back of a credit card did not match the imprint of the card, Newport Beach Police were alerted, and Aragon and Shitrit were arrested in the parking lot.
A search of Aragon's vehicle produced more than 50 forged credit and gift cards, as well as phony California driver licenses bearing various names with Aragon's photo. Also inside the vehicle were 20 ecstasy pills and prescription Xanax, police said at the time. A search of Aragon's home produced even more phony-baloney credit cards and driver licenses, as well as high-end goods purchased with them.
Searches of the residences of other crime ring members produced similar finds, but investigators unearthed the Mother Lode inside Shirit's Aliso Viejo apartment: the forgery lab designed to encode credit cards. Included were a $10,000 machine used to make credit cards, a halogram presser, a backlight printer, credit card writers, fake drivers licenses and thumb drives with thousands of hacked and stolen credit card numbers.
Below is that Wired video Spence shared, in which Newport Beach Police Det. Bob Watts demonstrated how the crooks worked the equipment. The copper notes that investigators were only able to account for $1.1 million worth of damages, but they know the total tab was much higher:
Aragon pleaded guilty Monday to 50 felony counts, including 33 counts of unauthorized use of personal identifying information, 13 counts of grand theft, two counts of counterfeiting access cards, and one count each of conspiracy to commit a crime and the sale or transport of a controlled substance. He also admitted to two sentencing enhancements for property damage over $1 million and aggravated white collar crime over $500,000.
His wife, Shitrit and fellow crime ring members Sarah Jean Gunderson, 29, Tustin; Elizabeth Ann Esquer, 34, of Irvine; Nancy Diaz Silva, 29, of San Juan Capistrano; and Federico Vigo, 52, Northridge, pleaded guilty in 2007 to more than 80 felony counts each, including conspiracy to commit identity theft, identity theft, burglary and possession of stolen property. Marcus Phillipe Rojas, 37, of Mission Viejo, also pleaded guilty that year to 17 felony counts, including identity theft, grand theft, burglary, possession of stolen property, possession of drugs for sale and possession of counterfeiting equipment.
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Their sentences ranged from one year in Orange County Jail with three years of formal probation up to seven years in state prison.