James Legerme, 29, of Sunrise; Junior Mertile, 30, of Pembroke Pines; Tony Mertile, 28, of Miramar; and Irvin Vilneus, 28, of North Lauderdale were arrested on Tuesday and face several charges, including bank fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, theft of public money, access device fraud, and money laundering. Police are reportedly searching for a fifth suspect, Allen Bien-Aime, 29, of Lehigh Acres, who was also involved in the alleged scheme. It is unclear if any of the individuals has acquired an attorney.
According to the criminal complaint, the five men were involved in a scheme to use stolen identities belonging to Rhode Islanders to apply online for unemployment benefits from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT). The investigation began back in May when RIDLT reportedly received approximately 2,000 complaints from Rhode Islanders who claimed their identities were being used to file false unemployment claims.
The complaint claims at least three of defendants used stolen identities to file fraudulent applications with RIDLT and other state unemployment systems. They reportedly had the funds deposited into several bank accounts which they opened for the express purpose of receiving benefit payments and tax refunds.
“There are serious, criminal consequences to making use of stolen personal identification information, filing fraudulent applications for unemployment insurance, and withdrawing such fraudulently obtained funds for one’s own, unlawful, benefit,” said U.S. Attorney Aaron L. Weisman.
It is unclear how much the defendants received in benefit payments. During their arrests, investigators reportedly seized more than $1.2 million in cash, several hundred debit cards in the names of individuals whose identities were purportedly stolen, six guns, and a large collection of high-end jewelry.
Tony Mertile, Junior Mertile, Vilneus, and Legerme made their initial court appearances in Florida on Wednesday morning. They remain held pending further court proceedings scheduled for later this month. Bien-Aime has not yet been apprehended, sources indicate.
“The federal government, with its many dedicated components and with the invaluable assistance of our state and local law enforcement partners, is committed to and will spare no effort in ensuring that unemployment insurance funds not be fraudulently misdirected by scammers and away from the hardworking Rhode Islanders entitled to and deserving of unemployment benefits,” said Weisman.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is encouraging any Rhode Islanders who believe their identity has been stolen and used to fraudulently apply for unemployment benefits to contact the Rhode Island State Police.
The use of stolen identities to steal government funds is not new, but cases have been on the rise since Congress passed a stimulus bill in March to deliver assistance to unemployed Americans when the coronavirus pandemic upended the economy.
Wire fraud and identity theft are federal offenses that carry penalties as high as 30 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. Anyone accused of committing these offenses should immediately speak with an experienced defense attorney who can review the facts of your case and craft a winning defense.
South Florida Fraud Defense Attorney