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Mexican citizen who stole government benefits for 37 years is sentenced to 37 months in federal prison

A Mexican citizen with more than 40 aliases who admitted to stealing more than $350,000 in government benefits was sentenced Friday to 37 months in federal prison, equaling one month of custody for every year he lived in the U.S. with a stolen identity.

Federal prosecutors say Tijuana resident Andres Avelino Anduaga, 66, somehow obtained a U.S. citizen’s birth certificate in 1980, and then used that identification to obtain a Social Security number and California driver’s license.

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With those documents, Anduaga was able to fraudulently obtain government benefits from federal, state and local agencies, including nearly $250,000 in illicit Social Security benefits, Special Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeffrey D. Hill said.

Anduaga also got Medi-Cal health benefits that he was not eligible for and caused a loss to the state of California in excess of $100,000, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Even after his Social Security was terminated in 2016, Anduaga signed up for CalFresh/Supplemental Nutrition benefits and continued to receive those benefits until his arrest last November, court documents show.

U.S. District Judge John Houston sentenced Anduaga for theft of public property and being in the U.S. illegally.

Anduaga admitted in his plea that despite being deported twice — in 1994 and 2000 — he was able to return and travel freely between the United States and Mexico using a U.S. passport that he obtained via the same stolen identity he used to defraud public assistance programs.

“What this guy was doing was ridiculous,” Hill told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a phone interview after Friday’s sentencing.

“This is one of the longest frauds, and one of the highest-dollar losses, if not the highest, that I’ve ever seen,” said Hill, who’s assigned to investigate and prosecute Social Security fraud in San Diego and Imperial counties. “It’s also the longest custodial sentence [for Social Security fraud] at least since I arrived in 2014.”

The case against Anduaga was a tricky one, Hill said, and prosecutors still are not sure whether Anduaga is even the defendant’s true name, or if he’s 66 years old, as he claims.

“He had at least 40 different [aliases],” Hill said.

What prosecutors were able to determine was that Anduaga had previously committed four felonies and 17 misdemeanors — all for nonviolent offenses — since 1973. Three of the felony offenses were committed after 1980, when he assumed the stolen identity.

Initially, investigators thought Anduaga was a legitimate U.S. citizen who was breaking the rules by receiving government aid while living in Tijuana.

“That’s very endemic when you have high rent on one side of the border, cheap rent on the other side,” Hill said.

The case took a turn when a second person in Oceanside tried to commit identity theft against the same man whose identity Anduaga had stolen in 1983. That led investigators to discover Anduaga’s prior criminal history, his previous deportations and his prolific, nearly four-decade-long scam.

“He cost taxpayers lots of money,” Hill said. “And those funds were stolen from the most needy.”

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