Today’s news:

Credit card scheme busted in Astoria store

Fifty-seven people — many of whom are Egyptian...

By Dustin Brown

An Astoria storefront allegedly served as the headquarters of a multimillion-dollar credit card fraud uncovered last week by the FBI in the largest scheme of its kind known to the agency, a spokesman said.

Fifty-seven people — many of whom are Egyptian immigrants — were charged with conspiracy to commit credit card fraud, allegedly bringing in $8.5 million between July 1998 and January 2001, FBI spokesman James Margolin said.

“I would say the scope of this fraud was unique,” said Supervisory Special Agent Ben Berry, who led the investigation. “To my knowledge it’s the largest credit-card fraud operation that the FBI has taken down, both in terms of numbers of individuals and also in terms of dollar loss.”

More than 200 FBI agents fanned across the metropolitan area early the morning of June 6 to make the arrests, apprehending 23 of the subjects.

If convicted, the defendants each could face up to 7 1/2 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, in addition to having to pay back the defrauded credit card companies.

FBI agents discovered 18 credit-card machines registered to fictitious businesses in a store called Dr. Gift’s 3000 at 26-19 24th Ave. in Astoria, which prints balloons, T-shirts and other novelty items, the agency said.

The machines were used by “merchants” to ring up thousands of dollars in false charges on credit cards willingly provided by “customers” who were paid for the use of their cards. A group of brokers served as middlemen between the two parties, taking a cut off the money paid to the cardholders.

Margolin said many of the cardholders fled the country as soon as their creditors acted on the massive debts they were accruing.

Warrants were issued for the arrest of 19 Queens residents from Astoria, Flushing, Ridgewood, East Elmhurst, Jamaica, Rego Park, Woodside, Corona and Jackson Heights.

Berry said the defendants were all acquainted in the Egyptian community. Many of the defendants who remain at large had likely fled to Egypt, he said.

“This particular scheme works very well within immigrant communities, because they have the ability to just flee the country and go back to where they came from,” Berry said. “That certainly was the case here.”

Although there is no extradition treaty between Egypt and the United States, Berry said he believes the FBI will apprehend the suspects “if and when” they decide to return to this country.

The storefront formerly occupied by Dr. Gift’s 3000 was bought last week by a man who said he was preparing to open an antique shop on the site within the next month. The new owner, who would not give his name, said Dr. Gift’s 3000 had been closed for a number of months before he made the purchase.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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