TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — Five Canadians have been charged by a U.S. grand jury for allegedly running a massive scheme to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) and event tickets to resell at a higher cost during the pandemic.
According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma, a recently unsealed indictment charges six people — five from Ontario and one from Los Angeles, California.
“At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is alleged that the conspirators began targeting U.S.-based businesses selling goods that were scarce due to the pandemic,” the release states.
“The conspirators allegedly used stolen credit card information to purchase items such as nitrile gloves, masks, and gowns and to resell them to third parties.”
In the early days of the pandemic, when panicked people were buying toilet paper en masse, the group allegedly purchased “approximately US$18,000 worth of toilet paper from a paper supply company in Oklahoma City,” in March 2020.
The group had allegedly been operating before the pandemic as well.
According to the indictment, as part of the alleged fraud, the group used 21 different email accounts and 52 stolen credit cards to impersonate people and purchase event tickets. At one point, they purchased more than 1,800 tickets to Oklahoma State University sporting events between November 2019 and January 2020.
The alleged conspirators also operated from numerous countries, including Canada, the Dominican Republic, Spain, Greece and Dubai, the release stated.
The investigation into this operation was a collaboration between five different federal or regional organizations, including the FBI, Homeland Security and the New York City Police Department.
The six people charged are Steven Mesrop, 29, Mirna Mahrous Habib, 24, Robert Vinnik, 26, Katayun Oskoi, 24, Carolina Mesrop, 23, and Dijon Cornelius Shepard, 27. Shepard is the sole American of the group.
While all were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud by a federal grand jury on April 8, Steven Mesrop and Vinnick are also facing charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Mesrop and Shepard are the only two who have been taken into custody so far. Mesrop was arrested last month in Georgia and Shepard was arrested in Los Angeles on April 16.
Each person involved in the alleged operation could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on conspiracy charges. The allegations have not been tested in court.
They could also be faced with a fine up to US$250,000 if convicted.
There have been many reported cases of people taking advantage of pandemic scarcities by hoarding things such as hand sanitizer or PPE in order to make a profit off of selling it.
Amazon, Walmart Marketplace and other sites that allow users to sell things on their platform had to delete thousands of listings of products such as hand sanitizer in the spring of 2020 because they had been wildly overpriced.
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