For a few very profitable years, Vanessa and Mario Perez made more than $322,000 by clearing up the blemished credit reports of people with bad bill-paying histories, almost as if by magic.
Authorities say the Perezes had a secret weapon: A network of dirty Miami-Dade County police officers and other local cops who broke the law while moonlighting on the job. At least four officers and an unnamed person wrote 215 falsified police reports for $200 to $250 a pop that the couple used to claim their customers were victims of identity theft — when they were not.
The four officers produced more than 130 of those fabricated reports, according to federal prosecutors.
The false ID theft claims provided the couple’s clients — who paid $1,500 each for the Perezes’ services — with an official excuse for their bad credit histories so they could get negative items removed from their reports, prosecutors allege. In turn, the customers could boost their credit scores with reporting agencies such as Equifax and obtain credit cards, loans and other financing again.
Miami-Dade police officers George Price, 42, and Rafael Duran, 43, were recently indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges for selling the Perezes many of the falsified crime reports, according to an indictment.
Both veteran officers are accused of “secretly” using their authority “to enrich” themselves “in exchange for favorable official action,” the indictment says.
Duran is also accused of writing additional police reports for himself and a “personal associate” — claiming they were victims of ID theft — and then signing another officer's name to the documents to avoid getting caught, according to the indictment.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, whose office has prosecuted more than a dozen police officers in recent years for running protection rackets, stealing people’s identities and filing false refund claims, said the latest “fraudulent conduct undermines the public’s trust in the integrity of our law enforcement community.”
Two other former veteran police officers, Richard Muñoz, 45, and Lazaro Fernandez, 40, who respectively worked in the cities of South Miami and Miami, have already pleaded guilty to participating in the couple’s scheme. Vanessa Perez, 46, who launched her credit repair businesses in late 2009, and husband Mario Perez, 51, who joined her two years later, have also pleaded guilty.
Duran’s defense attorney, Douglas Hartman, said his client was an actual victim of ID theft and hired Vanessa Perez in 2010 to help clean up his credit mess before eventually firing her. Duran, who joined the Miami-Dade police in 1994 and worked in the sexual victims bureau before being relieved of duty, has pleaded not guilty and plans to go to trial.
“He adamantly denies any criminal involvement with this woman [Vanessa Perez],” Hartman told the Miami Herald Friday. “He’s adamant that he’s innocent.”
Price’s attorney, Marshall Dore Louis, declined to comment, saying he was just learning about the charges after his client’s arrest this week. Price, also relieved of duty, joined the Miami-Dade police in 1999.
Vanessa Perez — who was previously convicted of absentee ballot fraud along with dozens of others after Miami’s infamous 1997 election —started working in the credit repair business six years ago. She incorporated Credit Doctor & Associates and Networth, and later opened FSM Group and Consolidated Financial Services with Mario Perez.
The couple would lure in customers with the promise of removing negative items from their credit reports, such as failing to pay home mortgages, car loans and credit card debt, according to court records.
To pull off the scam, the Perezes obtained falsified police reports saying their customers were victims of ID theft that messed up their credit histories. They obtained the bogus police reports from the four officers “by paying monetary bribes, directly or indirectly,” according to a statement filed with the couple’s plea agreements.
The Perezes paid bribes of $200 to $250 for each false report, the statement said. “In addition, they indirectly compensated several complicit police officers who furnished the false reports by repairing the credit of the police officers or a member of the officers’ family,” prosecutor Michael Davis wrote in the statement.
Vanessa Perez’s “intermediary” in dealing with Price was Mitchell Page, one of her customers and a friend of the officer’s. Last year, Page pleaded guilty for his role. In a statement filed with his plea agreement, the prosecutor noted that Page “would deliver a portion” of each $200 to $250 bribe payment to “Officer # 1” and “keep the remainder for himself.”
Davis did not identity Officer #1 in the statement, but sources familiar with the FBI investigation said the person is Price. Davis further noted that Page obtained “in excess of 50 police reports produced by Officer #1 that falsely alleged that customers” of the Perezes “had been victims of identity theft.”
Price is accused of fabricating police reports claiming the couple’s customers were “victims” of ID theft whose “accounts” had been “compromised” or “opened fraudulently,” according to the indictment. In the reports, “victims” stated that someone “attempted and/or conducted unauthorized transactions to the accounts.”
Also involved in the scheme: the couple’s assistant, Fatima Ruiz. She is accused of helping obtain false police reports and writing letters about the ID theft “victims” to the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Transunion and Experian. She is also accused of providing the couple’s funds to Page to pay off Price.
The indictment also says the 45-year-old Ruiz asked Duran, the Miami-Dade police officer, to falsify a report claiming that she was a victim of identity theft “to induce the [reporting] agencies to remove negative items from her credit history.”