Russia Meddling Probe Nabs Californian for Selling Fake IDs

(Bloomberg) -- A California man who ran a business trafficking in stolen identities and bank accounts pleaded guilty in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Richard Pinedo of Santa Paula, California, admitted to selling bank account numbers so that clients could circumvent security features of online digital payment companies like Paypal.
He pleaded guilty to a single charge of identity theft and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

Pinedo, 26, secretly entered his guilty plea on Monday, but his case wasn’t unsealed until Friday as Mueller’s office charged 13 Russians and three Russian entities with engaging in a widespread campaign to disrupt the election.

While Pinedo’s guilty plea doesn’t specifically tie him to the Russians, the allegations in the indictment track the details of his case.

Pinedo, who also went by "Ricky," identified himself on social media as a customer-marketing manager for a company called Auction Essistance, which purports to help people suspended by Paypal, Amazon and eBay "go stealth/incognito" to override their security features and use the service anyway.

According to Mueller’s office, Russians used Auction Essistance to buy stolen identities and bank accounts of real Americans. They used them to create Paypal accounts, which require a bank account number to verify identity.

The bogus accounts were then used to pay for operations of the Internet Research Agency, which ran the interference campaign. That included buying banners for rallies and purchasing advertising on Facebook. The Paypal accounts were also used to receive payments from merchants for promotional content on the Russians’ social-media accounts.

A Paypal spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Pinedo is the third person to plead guilty in Mueller’s investigation, which began in May 2017 to look into Russian meddling in the election.

A spokesman for Mueller said there was no evidence that Pinedo was a "witting participant" in Russia’s effort to destabilize the election.

Pinedo couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, and his lawyer, Jeremy Lessem of Sherman Oaks, California, didn’t return a phone call. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Lessem said, "Through an online website, Mr. Pinedo sold bank information which allowed individuals to fraudulently verify and establish accounts with online financial institutions. Doing so was a mistake, and Mr. Pinedo has accepted full responsibility for his actions.

"However, Mr. Pinedo had absolutely no knowledge of the identities and motivations of any of the purchasers of the information he provided,” Lessem said. “To the extent that Mr. Pinedo’s actions assisted any individuals, including foreign nationals, from interfering in the American presidential election was done completely without his knowledge or understanding."

Santa Paula is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, in suburban Ventura County.

Pinedo frequently purchased bank account numbers from a person he knew was outside the U.S., according to court papers. He also knew that many of the people he sold the bank account numbers to were outside the U.S., the records show.

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