A brazen Orange County identity theft ring that stole more than $400,000 from two Vons grocery stores in 2015 before a U.S. Secret Service investigation resulted this week in a 75-month federal prison punishment for one of the conspirators.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter allowed both federal prosecutors and 26-year-old Christopher Hoang Do to file sentencing arguments under seal before rending punishment and issuing a restitution order totaling $402,197, which the defendant will be jointly responsible to pay with colleagues John Steven Vo, Dat The Pham, Vu Tien Nguyen and Phi Hung Nguyen, according to court records.
Tipped by American Express security about suspicious transactions at Vons stores in Laguna Niguel and Laguna Woods, Secret Service agents assigned to white collar crime cases in Southern California discovered the thieves used stolen credit cards in efforts to obtain $800,000 worth of $500 gift cards during a two-month period. American Express rejected about half of the attempts, which ranged from $4,000 to $6,000 a piece. Store surveillance cameras showed that a conspirator purchasing the cards usually kept a cell phone to his ear throughout the checkout process, a move agents believe was designed to keep him in contact with lookouts in the parking lot.
According to a Secret Service report, many of the victims were unaware their accounts had been raided because they didn’t expect American Express to mail them unrequested new cards in 2015 with what was then a new micro-chip addition. The thieves, who live in Westminster and Santa Ana, managed to intercept mail delivery of the cards without detection and in some cases altered the plastic with high-tech equipment.
In early September 2015, agents plus undercover Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies placed the Vons stores under surveillance and only had to wait one day for the ring to hit the Laguna Niguel store with a fraudulent $6,577 purchase. Raids on houses tied to the thieves produced a huge cache of stolen credit cards, stolen mail, personal profiles of targets, a credit card reader, tipping foil, various ID theft tools, fake driver’s licenses, methamphetamine, five pounds of marijuana, scales, gaming consoles and slot machines.
Do’s sentencing inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana follows Carter’s previous 30-month punishment orders for Pham and Vu Tien Nguyen.