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Arrests made in identity thefts targeting Surfside condo collapse victims

Arrests made in ID theft targeting Surfside victims
Arrests made in identity theft targeting Florida condo collapse victims 00:29

This story originally appeared on CBS Miami.

Several people suspected of stealing the identities of those killed in the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, have been arrested.

Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30; Rodney Choute, 38; and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, have been charged with multiple counts of identity theft, organized scheme to defraud and trafficking in credit cards.

"This unbelievable tragedy tore at our very hearts. The loss of 98 lives was and is still is painfully tragic. But for a group of alleged identity thieves, it was a time to make some money," said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

"While families and friends were an absolute emotional turmoil. Their model could have been your losses are our gain," she added.

The trio is accused of using the stolen identities to get or replace credit cards and then make purchases.

"They immediately started buying. I can tell you that between July seventh and ninth, just in those two days, there were 28 attempted transactions, including at an ATM at the Aventura Mall, which was caught on closed-circuit TV," said Fernandez Rundle.

She said authorities first learned of the identity thefts about two weeks after the collapse.

"It was first recognized by the sister of one of the deceased victims on or about July 9 of 2021. Think about that. That's only 16 days after the building's collapse, the sister notified the Surfside police department, and since the collapse that she had noticed that her mailing address was changed," she said.

Fernandez Rundle said when the woman received some of her financial statements, she realized that replacement credit cards were requested to be mailed to a new address, that there were multiple unauthorized wire transfers that were initiated from the deceased account to other accounts, and that a number of fraudulent purchases were put on these other cards.

One example included a July 8 purchase of Medusa sandals at the Aventura mall for $374.

Surveillance cameras at the store captured the purchase by a woman who was later seen driving a Mercedes. The state attorney said the car's license plate came back to one of the suspected thieves.

Another pricey purchase was a black Versace purse, valued at $1,650.50, at the Versace store in the Miami design district.

Investigators believe they stole the identities of seven people, including three of those killed in the collapse and two survivors.

Fernandez Rundle said Medina was recorded ordering a replacement credit under the name of one of the victims and asked that it be sent to a residence in Hallandale Beach. The state attorney said the suspects did not live in the home but used it as a drop location for the credit cards they were acquiring.

"It's been more than two months since the unspeakable tragedy of the collapse of Champlain Towers South. We've been working so hard to bring closure to the families affected, to help the survivors relocate, to the families of the victims to find peace. Yet here we are faced with this incredible exploitation of the dead from this unspeakable tragedy," said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

If convicted, each person faces up to 15 to 30 years in prison.

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