Romano's Jewelers Owner Pleads Guilty To Identity Theft Charges Associated With Fraud Case Targeting Military Members

Ramil Abalkhad was charged following a 2012 U.S Marine Corps criminal investigation detailed in documents NBC 7 Investigates obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Romano’s Jewelers owner Ramil Abalkhad pleaded guilty to multiple felony charges of identity theft associated with a 2012 U.S Marine Corps criminal investigation detailed in documents NBC 7 Investigates obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The charges include: conspiracy to commit identity theft, identity theft with intent to defraud and theft by false pretenses, according to San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas.

Abalkhad originally pleaded not guilty with the case scheduled to go to trial early next year. Tuesday in a Vista courtroom, Abalkhad changed that plea and admitted guilt.

According to Darvas, Abalkhad must pay $55,000 in restitution to at least 70 victims and write a letter to credit report companies stating the wrongdoing was his, and not the fault of military men and women. The letter, Darvas said, is meant to help alleviate blame from the victims.

Click here to read the letter Darvas said Abalkhad will send.

Darvas told NBC 7 Investigates most of the victims were young.

"Most of them were 18, 19-years-old, first time they'd ever been out of the house, out on their own," she said. "It was their first experience ever with retail credit, so they were pretty young and vulnerable victims."

According to the original criminal complaint, between 2010 and 2012, Abalkhad instructed jewelry store manager Carlos Torres and employee Nellie Cha Noland to obtain the personal financial information of Marine customers and then add unauthorized charges on their store credit accounts.

Torres and Noland pleaded guilty in the case earlier this year and agreed to be a cooperating witness against Abalkhad.

Abalkhad, Noland and Torres will be sentenced February 27, 2017, Darvas said. 

According to Darvas, if Abalkhad pays the $55,000 in restitution payments before his sentencing he will receive probation with terms to be determined by the judge. If Abalkhad fails to pay the restitution before sentencing, he will be sentenced to three years in a local prison, according to Darvas.

After court Tuesday, Abalkhad did not comment to NBC 7 Investigates about the charges.

Click here to see the all of NBC 7 Investigates stories, in the series, “Jewelry Store Under Fire.”

According to the original 2012 Marine Corps investigation, a Marine at the time 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.

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.

Tate was dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps. When NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Tate last year, he sent the following statement: “I would only like to say I am deeply apologetic to the Marines and sailors who have been hurt by this. I never meant for anything so wrong to happen. Tell Marines to be careful who they give info to. Stores like Romano's target Marines. I just want to apologize to everyone involved and my chain of command. I paid my debt to the Corps and lost my dream career. I do however have remorse for Marines and sailors that got unknowingly involved."

NBC 7 Investigates first began looking at Romano’s business practices in November 2014.

Click here to see the all of NBC 7 Investigates stories, in the series, “Jewelry Store Under Fire.”

After receiving numerous reports from military members nationwide that Romano’s Jewelers took advantage of them, NBC 7 Investigates looked into U.S. Marine Jacob Helmuth’s purchase of a necklace. Romano’s Jewelers calls it the “Mother’s Medal of Honor.”

The price tag of more than $2,300 for the necklace and a watch raised a red flag. After sifting through purchase details, NBC 7 Investigates discovered there wasn’t much of a paper trail.

“They didn’t show me the percentage rate,” Helmuth told Nguyen. He was referring to the 29.9 percent interest rate included in his payment plan.

Click here to see that NBC 7 Investigates original story. 

As a result of the NBC 7 Investigates story, the U.S. Navy warned all its sailors in the San Diego region about the company.

Several Romano’s Jewelers locations across Southern California, including three in San Diego County, closed or were in the process of shutting down last year, according to the business’ Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee. Four stores in the Los Angeles area are still opened, according to the company’s website. 

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