Feds: Woman operated illegal call center out of apartment
TAMPA - A 34-year-old woman operated an illegal call center out of an apartment in the Arbor Lakes complex on Memorial Highway, authorities say. Rosa C. Ramirez-Arias is accused of using "cloned" cell phone information to steal phone service, allowing customers of her business to make free international phone calls. Ramirez-Arias is charged with the federal crime of participating in a scheme to defraud through the theft of cell phone service. According to the Federal Communications Commission, every cell phone is supposed to have a unique factory-set electronic serial number and telephone number. A cloned cell phone is one that has been reprogrammed to transmit the numbers from another legitimate cell phone.The FCC says thieves can obtain valid number combinations by illegally monitoring the radio wave transmissions from the cell phones of legitimate subscribers. Cellular systems cannot distinguish the cloned cell phone from the legitimate one, and the legitimate phone user gets billed for the cloned phone's calls. Often the phone company just absorbs the loss, however, according to the federal complaint. Illegal call centers use the phones to make unlimited calls to places such as Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, according to the complaint affidavit. Sprint Nextel, the company that serviced the phone numbers in the Arbor Lakes phone center, lost nearly $3.5 million in the Tampa area through such fraud in the last six months, according to the complaint. Nationwide, the company lost $24 million. At least 6 million calls were placed through 4,442 cloned phone numbers from the Arbor Lakes Apartment complex, the complaint states. Authorities stumbled onto the call center when the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was dispatched to a 911 call originating from the apartment on Feb. 10, the affidavit states. The deputy knocked on the door, but had difficulty communicating with Ramirez-Ariaz because she only spoke Spanish. Still, Ramirez-Arias understood enough to let the deputy into the apartment, the affidavit states. Looking to see if someone was inside who might have dialed 911, the deputy saw that the bedroom had shelving stacked with a large number of cell phones and other electronic equipment, the affidavit states. At that point, Ramirez-Arias blocked the deputy and closed the bedroom door. The deputy then stepped outside the apartment and called for a Spanish-speaking officer. The Spanish-speaking deputy told Ramirez-Arias they wanted to check to see if anyone was inside. Ramirez-Arias told the deputy she needed to get dressed, and closed the door for about five minutes, the affidavit states. After she let the deputies inside, they saw security cameras in the living room and bedroom. They saw rows of cell phones and electronic equipment in the bedroom, but the first deputy noticed that most of the phones and equipment had been unplugged and moved, the affidavit states. After being told her Miranda rights, Ramirez-Arias told the detective she had moved to Tampa from New York at the request of Almellis Soto, who was leasing the apartment. She said Almellis Soto's husband, Harold, paid her $200 a week to run the call center, according to the affidavit. She was supposed to make sure no one came into the apartment, and to turn the equipment on and off when needed. She also was supposed to charge the cell phones. In a later interview with the Secret Service, she said she would receive e-mails with telephone numbers, and she would transfer those numbers to the cell phones in the center so calls could be completed, the affidavit states. She told the Secret Service that whenever she left the apartment, Almellis Soto would call her to ask where she was going. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed an immigration detainer on Ramirez-Arias, according to Hillsborough County Jail records. The Sotos lived at 6504 W. Chelsea St., Tampa, in 2008, the affidavit states. Investigators have information linking Harold Soto to other fraudulent cell phone centers in the United States, according to the affidavit. Investigators think Harold Soto is in the Dominican Republic, said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the Secret Service. "We'll certainly be ready for him when he comes back to the United States, if he does," Joyce said. Agents are also looking for Almellis Soto, Joyce said. Anyone with information about the couple is asked to call the Secret Service at (813) 228-2636 and ask for Special Agent Joshua Becker.