It started as a rather straightforward Social Security fraud investigation — a man receiving disability benefits pretending to live in the United States when in fact he lived in Tijuana.
What authorities uncovered was a 37-year identity theft scheme by a repeat felon who violated immigration laws and bilked federal, state and local governments out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits, according to a plea agreement entered in San Diego federal court this week.
The man — identified as Andres Avelino Anduaga, if that’s even his real name — admitted to assuming the identity of a U.S. citizen in 1980. After obtaining a fake birth certificate, he developed a seemingly legitimate persona by applying for a California driver’s license, Social Security number and U.S. passport.
The official documents identified him as Abraham Riojos, born in Alpine, Texas, in 1958.
The documents allowed him to move freely between Mexico and the U.S., and also to receive nearly $361,000 in government benefits over the years.
On Thursday, Anduaga, 66, pleaded guilty to theft of public property and being a previously removed from the U.S. for crossing the border illegally.
He has agreed to pay back to several government agencies what he stole but could face additional fines as well as up to 12 years in prison when sentenced.
The investigation started in 2014 with a mailbox, and then unfolded clue by clue, according to the complaint. The Social Security Administration office in Chula Vista alerted its inspector general’s office that private mailboxes near the U.S.-Mexico border may be linked to residency fraud.
Only U.S. citizens or valid visa holders can receive Social Security disability benefits, and they must reside in the United States.
In April 2015, during a standard review to determine whether he was still eligible for benefits, the man who called himself Riojos gave an address on San Ysidro Boulevard that was found to be a mailbox rental facility. When he was summoned to the Chula Vista office for an interview, he presented a state ID card identifying himself as Riojos and claimed to be renting a room from a man on I Street in Chula Vista.
During the interview, an investigator with the California Department of Health Care Services called the second man, who confirmed the living arrangement.
But when investigators visited the home in January 2016, the man admitted Riojos never lived there, but instead lived in Mexico, the complaint states.
Investigators turned to the border crossing records, finding frequent travels indicating Riojos had likely been living in Mexico since at least 2014.
They then learned that another person had tried to sign up for disability benefits in Oceanside under the same Riojos name, using a fake birth certificate with the same date and place of birth, according to the complaint.
The investigators went to the criminal records, finding the initial man claiming to be Riojos had a rap sheet that included 21 different names and six dates of birth, dating back to 1974. They included a firearms violation, forgery, cocaine possession and multiple DUIs, according to prosecutors.
Immigration records rounded out the picture. He’d been deported twice, once in 1994 and again in 2000. During the last deportation, he had given authorities his real name: Jose Reyes. Or so they thought.
Investigators tracked down the real Abraham Riojos to Immokalee, Fla., a rural town south of Fort Myers. He told the special agents who visited him that he had no idea his identity had been used all these years.
He went by a different name now himself, Abram Riojas, a switch he said he made in the 1980s after his father started going by that name. He had a legal Social Security number separate from the fraudulent one Anduaga had applied for and received, which is probably why he hadn’t yet run into cross-identity problems, authorities said. The real Riojos also hadn’t applied for any Social Security benefits yet, another reason he might not have known something was awry.
An analysis of Anduaga’s benefits showed he first applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits in 1989 and was awarded payments retroactive to 1988. He received monthly payments — $244,441 total — until Aug. 1, 2016, according to his plea agreement.
He also applied for Medi-Cal benefits — for which he was not qualified because of his immigration status — and received $112,981 total. Plus, he illegally received more than $3,486 in food stamps under a county program.
Records show he crossed through the pedestrian lanes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry several times a week. He was arrested Nov. 28 during one of those crossings. His arrest warrant bore the name Jose Reyes, and besides Riojos and Riojas the complaint included another a.k.a of Jose Gonzalez-Cardoza. It wasn’t until later, when pressed, that he said his real name was Andres Avelino Anduaga, prosecutors said.
But even that appears to have been a process. In a motion filed by his defense attorney in January, it refers to the defendant as Omar Anduaga.
He claims he was born Nov. 10, 1951, in Temoris in the state of Chihuahua. Authorities remain skeptical.
He has remained in custody since his arrest and prosecutors have noted that he suffers from a variety of health problems.
It is not clear how Anduaga got ahold of Riojos’ identity, although authorities have suggested the two didn’t know each other. As far as how he was able to apply for a Social Security number using a fake birth certificate and someone else’s identity, blame it on the times. Prosecutors say in 1980, an analogue era without computers, identity theft was harder to detect and easier for forgers to pull off.
Sentencing has been set for May 29.