A woman originally from China pleaded guilty in federal court for her part in a scheme to counterfeit retail gift cards across the Midwest, including Belleville.
Hongying Wang, 53, a Chinese national, was charged with trafficking in a counterfeit access device in the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Illinois. According to court records, Wang and an accomplice, Gaungwei Gao, placed altered gift cards on the sales racks at Target stores while retaining the access numbers. Once a gift card was loaded with money by an unsuspecting patron, the two would use the access codes and shop for themselves.
Through an interpreter, Wang pleaded guilty on Thursday. She faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing is set for Jan. 22, 2024 at the federal courthouse in East St. Louis.
Gao also has been charged.
“Protecting consumers from fraud is a familiar battle, but individuals deliberately placing fake gift cards onto sales racks with the intention of stealing the funds from patrons is a new low, and I applaud the law enforcement officials who are investigating this case,” said U.S. Attorney Rachelle Aud Crowe.
According to court documents, Wang and Gao left the Los Angeles area in January with about 6,100 Target gift cards with no balances on them. The obscured field containing the card numbers and access codes were scratched off and covered with a sticker that made the cards appear unaltered.
They retained those numbers and checked the balances on them regularly. When a card had been purchased and loaded with a dollar amount, they and others used the cards to make purchases for themselves.
Federal investigators were able to trace the balance checks to the IP address of a computer in Singapore and “Fremont” United States, the court records state.
Not long after leaving Los Angeles, a security officer at the Target store in the Belleville Crossing shopping center witnessed Wang and Gao placing 11 of gift cards onto the racks. Others were discovered in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Norman, Oklahoma; Edmond, Oklahoma; Liberty, Missouri; Independence, Missouri; St. Peters, Missouri; Town and Country, Missouri; and Brentwood, Missouri.
The approximate value of the counterfeit gift cards was $207,400, according to court records.
“Fraud is often mistaken for a victimless crime but when individuals like Wang commit these types of crimes, they are most certainly victimizing consumers and businesses,” said Special Agent in Charge of the HSI Chicago Area of Operations Sean Fitzgerald.