The owner of a San Diego jewelry store and two employees have been charged with 14 counts of identity theft in connection with obtaining personal financial information from customers who were active duty military members, according to a complaint filed by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office Tuesday.
The complaint alleges, between 2010 and 2012, the owner of Romano’s Jewelers in Carlsbad, Randy (Ramil) Abalkhad, instructed employees, Carlos Omar Torres and Nellie Cha Noland, to obtain the personal financial information and then add unauthorized charges on the customers store credit accounts.
The charges are in connection with a 2012 U.S Marine Corps criminal investigation that NBC 7 Investigates obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Those documents and the complaint from the DA’s office detail how a Marine provided personal financial information belonging to military members to the jewelry store in exchange for money, jewelry and a clean balance on his Romano’s store credit account.
If convicted of all charges, the former employees and the owner face up to 12 years and four months in local prison.
NBC 7 Investigates had Major John H. Schweitzer with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve weigh in on this case. He is currently a Marine judge advocate.
"It is surprising and a relief to know that somebody on the outside taking advantage of military is actually being charged. I've never seen prosecution done through civilian criminal court system," said Major Schweitzer.
"This is the first time in my career I've seen this happen, and it sends a great message to others that may be thinking about or doing these types of things," he said.
The Marine was charged and admitted to bribery, conspiracy and fraud. He was convicted at a special court-martial, and sentenced to 10 months confinement, a fine of $2,260 and a bad conduct discharge, Jason Johnston, Director of Public Affairs for the Marine Corps Installation West, said in an email to NBC 7 Investigates.
NBC 7 Investigates has reached out to the former Marine and the defendants but has not received a response.
In an email, David Youssefyeh, an attorney for Romano’s, said, “I can categorically deny that any owner, or supervisor, of Romano's had any idea that any of this was going on. In fact, the one Romano's employee that was identified as being involved with the Marine was fired years ago because of performance issues.”
Youssefyeh did not answer when asked if Torres and Noland were still employed by Romano’s. NBC 7 Investigates called the Carlsbad store owned by Abalkhad, and a store employee and manager verified he was still the owner of the store.
"I hope [this case] sends a couple messages," said Maj. Schweitzer. "First, to unscrupulous store owners that do these things that take advantage of military member and makes them think about the possibility they can get charged and convicted and face jailtime. It also tells the military members to be more wary of these types of places, and your own military brother and sister can be the one who sends you down the road."
How it Worked
Active military members have an account called Defense Finance Accounting Service (DFAS) MyPay. It is similar to a bank account and can be directly connected to other financial or loan accounts allowing the military member to have money withdrawn from the account to pay bills. Those automatic pay deduction to pay off loans are called allotments.
According to the complaint, the Romano’s employees would provide the former marine, Kymani Tate, with Social Security Numbers of military members who had store credit accounts with Romano’s. Tate would then find the corresponding DFAS MyPay accounts associated with those numbers and reset the passwords or pins. With the new pins, the Romano’s employees could gain access to the MyPay accounts and add unauthorized charges.
Abalkhad told Noland she would receive $10 for each MyPay account password she was able to reset, according to the complaint.
Noland then made a deal with Tate. According to the complaint, she offered to pay Tate $25 to reset MyPay account passwords on the accounts of active duty military members who were customers.
The complaint alleges how the employees and Tate would communicate through emails to exchange the personal information.
On October 24, 2011, Noland emailed Tate with 11 social security numbers which corresponded to active duty service member’s MyPay accounts. Nolan asked Tate to reset those account passwords on all accounts to “11223355.”
Noland instructed Tate to let her know when the passwords were reset so Noland could, “tell my boss,” according to the complaint.
The next day, Noland emailed Tate asking about his progress with resetting the passwords and said, “the owner is here and asking.”
In an email, Tate responded to Noland and said, “Done. Can do some more tomorrow.”
In the days and weeks following, Noland continued to ask Tate to reset more and more pins. On November 9, 2011, Noland emailed Tate and said, “my boss asked me if you think you can get any today? We really need them. Please get back to me when you get this or when you can.”
The email to Tate continued: “I hate to bug,” Noland wrote. “Really. Its just people are down my throat and I can’t stand it. So if you can do it, it will get me off your back to :). just even if you can do 5 i would appreciate it.”
Five days later Tate emailed Noland back and said, “I am back at work and yes I can get some PINS done today.”
In total, at least 143 pins were asked to be reset.
Click here to read the complete complaint.
Abalkhad and Torres were in court Tuesday. Both men posted bail for $720,000 and were released, Steve Walker, Communications Director for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office said.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Noland, who is not currently in custody.
The store is located at 2525 Camino Real in the Carlsbad Plaza South Shopping Center. The jewelry store has locations across Southern California, including four others in the San Diego area.
In November, NBC 7 Investigates first reported concerns by military members and their families that Romano’s is taking advantage of service members.
Click here to see the original investigation.
As a result of the story, the U.S. Navy warned all its sailors in the San Diego region about the company.
Click here to learn more about the warning from the U.S. Navy.
Because the investigation is pending, Walker said the DA’s office is not able to provide other information about the evidence or facts in the case.
The owner and employees are scheduled to appear in court again on April 2.
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