About 3,300 military members and veterans across the country, including some in Texas, were defrauded of millions of dollars as part of a five-year international scheme, U.S. Justice Department officials said Wednesday.
Beginning in 2014, personal identification information of military members was used to get into government websites for veterans benefits, officials said. Money and more personal identification information — which allowed perpetrators to get into the victims' bank accounts — were stolen, totaling millions of dollars, officials said.
Five people were accused of participating in the scheme in an indictment unsealed Wednesday. Robert Wayne Boling Jr., Frederick Brown, Trorice Crawford, Allan Albert Kerr and Jongmin Seok were indicted in federal court in the Western District of Texas on 14 charges including conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, officials said. The group operated in the U.S. and the Philippines, officials said.
According to the indictment, Brown was working as a civilian employee at an U.S. Army installation in 2014 and had access to the electronic health records of people affiliated with the military. He is accused of taking photos of thousands of members' personal information, including names, birth dates, Social Security numbers and Department of Defense identification numbers, the indictment says.
From there, officials said Brown used the information along with Boling, Kerr and Seok to get into online portals meant for military members and veterans to organize benefits payments. Kerr and Seok were based in the Philippines at the time, officials said.
One of the websites the group broke into was hosted by the Veterans Administration in the Western District of Texas, which includes the areas of Austin, San Antonio, Waco, Del Rio, El Paso and other territory stretching from Central to West Texas, the indictment says.
James Hutton, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said his agency "is working with (the Defense Department) to identify any instances of compromised VA benefits accounts. Just as importantly, VA has taken steps to protect veterans’ data and are instituting additional protective measures.”
The information allowed the group to reroute money into the bank accounts of people collaborating with the suspects, the indictment says. Crawford is accused of acting as the recruiter and supervisor of people who provided their bank accounts for the stolen money to be deposited into, the indictment says. The money would later be sent to the suspects through a wire transfer, the document says.
Some of the recruited people were based in San Antonio, the indictment says. It was unclear Wednesday whether any of those people would face charges.
The scheme's victims are spread out across the country, including in Texas, Justice Department spokesman Daryl Fields said. A breakdown of who was affected and where they lived was not available Wednesday, he said.
Federal officials intend to restore the stolen benefits, Fields said.
VA and Defense Department officials said some of the victims might not be aware of anything unusual happening with their benefits and that federal officials would be making contact with those affected, The Military Times reported.
One of the victims mentioned in the indictment was a 76-year-old former prisoner of war who had a monthly benefits payment of $2,915.55 stolen from him, the document says. Another victim was a 73-year-old in New Braunfels who had $41,500 stolen, the indictment says.
"The crimes charged today are reprehensible and will not be tolerated by the Department of Justice. These defendants are alleged to have illegally defrauded some of America’s most honorable citizens, our elderly and disabled veterans and service members,” said U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
Officials found evidence of the scheme earlier this year and began an investigation.
Boling, Kerr and Seok were arrested in the Philippines; Brown was arrested in Las Vegas; and Crawford was arrested in San Diego.
“Our message is pretty simple,” said John Bash, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas. “It doesn’t matter where on this planet you reside. If you target our veterans, we’re coming for you. Our veterans were willing to risk everything to protect this nation from foreign threats. Now it’s our turn to seek justice for them.”