Man accused of defrauding Pasadena businesses through fraudulent fire extinguisher service

PASADENA >> Police and fire officials arrested a man Wednesday in connection with an alleged scam ripping off dozens of Pasadena businesses over recent years through a series of fraudulent fire extinguisher service businesses, officials said.
Operating under several different business names, Joshua Lopez, 32, of Rowland Heights, was among a group of suspects who used deceptive tactics to obtain appointments with local businesses, then failed to properly service the fire extinguishers, often leaving behind old or faulty extinguishers with new inspection certificates, Pasadena Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.
Not only did the scam bilk Pasadena business owners out of money, but it left them in serious danger with a “false sense of security” should they depend on their fire extinguishers to fight a fire, Derderian said.
When business owners get their fire equipment services, as is required annually by law, “There’s an expectation that it’s going to work during an emergency,” Derderian said.
To secure business, the companies relied on deceitful and dishonest practices, such as falsely telling employees that their superiors had previously approved the service, officials said.
The alleged scam has been taking place in Pasadena for several years, but those responsible eluded authorities until Wednesday, Derderian said.
Officials arrested Lopez Wednesday when he showed up to service a fire extinguisher at a Pasadena nonprofit organization, CALSTART, which has been victimized by the alleged scam for the past three years, according to CALSTART Chief Financial Officer Scott Carrano. The nonprofit group is dedicated to the advancement of green transportation technologies and workforce training, primarily through research, consulting and education.
Carrano said he first became suspicious of the fire equipment servicing company last year after noticing they had grossly overbilled for their purported services.
After having the extinguishers examined, Carrano learned they had not been properly serviced, or even serviced at all.
There was no inspector license number or company license number listed on the fire extinguisher certificates left by the company, and the dates on the certification cards did not match those on the labels attached to the extinguishers themselves.
In once instance, Lopez caught on surveillance camera simply replacing the certification tag without servicing the extinguisher, officials said.
CALSTART has since replaced its seven fire extinguishers from others from a reputable company, he said.
While the extinguisher service businesses charged $25 to $30 per each fire extinguisher purportedly serviced, Carrano said he was far more disturbed by the deceit, and the potential danger it placed his employees in, “from a safety perspective.”
“We’ve got 20 lives in our building, and I’m responsible for them,” he said.
Carrano thanks Pasadena fire officials for their help and urged other businesses to check on their fire extinguishers.
The investigation into Lopez, his businesses and his associates was ongoing, officials said.
Lopez was issued a misdemeanor fraud citation, Pasadena police Lt. Mark Goodman said.
He could not be reached for comment Friday.
Pasadena fire officials urged business owners to be mindful when it comes to their fire safety equipment.
“The Pasadena Fire Department reminds businesses and residents (of) condominium and apartment units to ask questions if an uninvited person shows up claiming they were scheduled,” Derderian said. “After confirming that the company was actually requested, make sure you ask for a city business license and their state fire marshal identification that authorizes them to work on fire extinguishers. Additionally, their vehicle should be labeled with a company name and business license number.”
Fire department officials urged business owners to contact the department at 626-744-7177 with any concerns regarding a fire extinguisher service company.

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Hacienda Heights man gets 30-months in prison for father-son tax return scheme

LOS ANGELES >> A Hacienda Heights man began serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term after he was sentenced for his role in a scheme that netted more than $2.6 million in bogus tax returns using stolen identities, authorities said.
Heber Cotton, 40, pleaded guilty late last year to a count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government by obtaining the payment of fraudulent tax refunds, U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement. U.S. District Judge Michael W. Firzgerald handed down the 30-month prison term Monday in federal court in Los Angeles.
Cotton was additionally ordered to pay $725,000 in restitution.
His father and co-conspirator, 64-year-old Adel Cotton, pleaded guilty to the same charge in 2012 and has since been sentenced to 4 years and three months in federal prison, officials said.
“This father and son pair prolifically defrauded the government and hundreds of taxpayers, earning them the significant sentences imposed by the court,” according to United States Attorney for the Central District of California Eileen M. Decker.
From December of 2008 to March of 2010, “the Cottons caused at least 275 fraudulent income tax returns to be filed with the IRS,” Mrozek said. “Those fraudulent returns sought income tax refunds totaling more than $2.6 million.”
The father and son used the names and social security numbers of victims without their knowledge to fill out fraudulent tax returns, officials said. They instructed the refund checks to be sent to addressed they controlled.
Heber Cotton admitted in court documents that he gave stolen identity information to a co-conspirator, who worked as a bank manager, who opened bank accounts with the fraudulently obtained funds, in exchange for a 20 percent cut of each refund check.
The bank manager, identified in court documents as Michael Rodriguez, managed a U.S. Bank branch inside a Tustin supermarket, Mrozek said.
He has since pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the scheme and is awaiting sentencing.
“These unscrupulous defendants, a father and son team, thought they had figured out a clever scheme to thwart the IRS and steal from American taxpayers,” IRS Criminal Investigation’s Acting Special Agent in Charge Anthony J. Orlando added. “IRS CI has made investigating refund fraud and identity theft a top priority and we will vigorously pursue those who undermine the integrity of the U.S. tax system.”

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Three sentenced in large-scale Pico Rivera real estate loan modification scheme

PICO RIVERA >> A judge Friday sentenced three of four people linked to a massive real estate loan modification scheme in Pico Rivera victimizing more than 500 Spanish-speaking homeowners already in financial distress, authorities said.
The years-long investigation into the company “Safe Haven,” also known as, “Your Dreams Come True,” has resulted in four felony convictions and the disbarment of an attorney, Sgt. Dana McCants of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau said in a written statement. Another suspect in the case remains a fugitive.
The investigation began in September of 2009 in response to customer complaints about the company, located on Slauson Avenue, officials said. Many of the victims sought out the fraudulent company for help after hearing advertisements on Christian Spanish radio.
“Safe Haven posed as a loan modification and foreclosure consultant company, but the entire premiss of their business was a scam,” McCants said.
“The Real Estate Team responded to the Safe Haven business office in Pico Rivera and served search warrants which led to the seizure of thousands of fraudulent documents and paperwork,” McCants said. “All the homes were being foreclosed on and all of the victims money had been taken (or) misused by the suspects.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office ultimately filed fraud charges against five suspects in May of 2010, officials said.
Safe Haven Executive Director, who previously denied any wrongdoing, accepted a plea deal in the case in September, along with co-defendants Alex Canjura, Erika Perez and Oswaldo Flores, McCants said. Canjura received a 5-year prison sentence immediately following his plea.
Jurado, Perez and Flores, who have been free on bail, were sentenced Friday.
Jurado and Canjura each received a 5-year-prison sentenced, McCants said. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sentenced Perez and Flores to 16 months in county jail each.
The convicts were also ordered to pay $4.5 million in restitution.
Prior the filing of criminal charges, Jurado denied any wrongdoing, saying the company was merely, “behind on the files.”
A fifth suspect in the fraud case, Candy Cabrera, fled from Canada upon learning she was to be extradited back to California to face charges, McCants said. She is believed to be hiding out in Nicaragua.
An attorney involved with the bogus loan modification company, Tanmay Mistray, was disbarred after being accused of 13 counts of professional misconduct, McCants added.
— Staff Writer Ruby Gonzales contributed to this report.

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Meet South Pasadena’s “Bernie Madoff”

South Pasadena’s Bernie Madoff will be in court today for arraignment:

SOUTH PASADENA – The man local authorities have dubbed “Bernie Madoff of South Pasadena” is scheduled to be arraigned Friday at Los Angeles Superior Court.

Morris Gussin is facing twenty felony counts of grand theft and securities violations in a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.

He was arrested by a Federal Bureau of Investigations Task Force in Las Vegas and was extradited by South Pasadena authorities after a two and half year investigation.

Janice and Carlos Sams Cespedes said they were referred to Gussin by a mutual friend to help them go over their insurance policy and write a will after Carlos was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.

“She trusted him and because she trusted him, I trusted him,” Janice said. “He used her name because she’s known in the Pasadena community and unbeknownst to her he was stealing people’s money.”

Gussin is being represented by the law firm of Brown, White & Newhouse, LLP.

“(Gussin) will certainly enter a plea of not guilty to the charges,” said George Newhouse, attorney. “A great number of the charges appear to be seven or eight years old and under the law they have three years to allege grand theft.”

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Nurses gone wild

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At left is Susan Bendigo, also known as Susan Lim. She’s a federal fugitive in a 42-defendant case involving shady nurses operating out of Santa Fe Springs. 

The US Attorney’s office unsealed indictments against several local nurses allegedly involved in a Medicare scam. Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the US Justice Department sent out a press release referring to the caper as “Nurses Gone Wild.”
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