Seventeen men and women—including some from Latvia and Estonia—have been charged in Miami Beach, Fla., in what U.S. authorities say was an elaborate scheme to bilk rich male patrons of private night clubs by getting them to pay exorbitant prices for drinks.
At least 88 tourists became victims of the scheme that involved Eastern European “bar girls” or “B-girls” luring them to private clubs, according to the criminal complaint filed April 6 in U.S. District Court in Miami. Once in the clubs, the men were tricked into paying dramatically inflated prices for drinks.
In one case, a victim had to pay USD 5,000 for a bottle of champagne. In another, a man from Philadelphia was defrauded of USD 43,000, which included him waking up in his hotel room with an unknown painting he apparently had purchased the night before.
“This is done by either having the female co-conspirators order multiple bottles of wine and champagne without the victim’s knowledge, misleading male victims about the price of alcohol, forging the victim’s signatures on credit card receipts, or processing unauthorized charges on the victim’s credit cards,” according to the criminal complaint.
In an early morning raid on clubs in Miami’s South Beach district, authorities arrested 16 alleged conspirators and “B-girls.” The alleged ringleader, 44-year-old Alec Simchuk of Hallandale Beach, Fla., is believed to have fled the United States.
Listed with Simchuk as conspirators and investors in the criminal organization that ran the scheme are Svetlana Coghlan, 41, of Hollywood, Fla.; Isaac Feldman, 50, of Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.; Fady Kaldas, 35, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Stanislav Pavlenko, 39, of Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.; Albert Takhalov, 29, of Aventura, Fla.; and Siavash Zargari, 46, of Miami Beach.
Federal authories built their case against the defendants by using a local undercover agent who posed as a corrupt police officer and infiltrated the organization, gaining the trust of the conspirators and the “B-girls,” according to the complaint. Other undercover agents posed as victims.
The organization, according to the complaint, opened at least six South Beach clubs, obtained liquor and business licenses, and acquired merchant account and credit card terminals to be used in the clubs.
The conspirators also are alleged to have organized the “B-girls” to come to the U.S., slipping them through the Visa Waiver Program by claiming that the women were not coming to work or to engage in criminal activity. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were admitted to the program in November 2008, meaning citizens of those countries no longer have to obtain a visa to visit America.
The women are said to have been trained in Eastern Europe to work the fraud scheme.
In Miami, the women would work in pairs, hunting for the victims in other clubs, usually between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
“B-Girls’ ideal targets are wealthy males, preferably tourists or traveling businessmen due to the low probability that they will come back into the club once they have discovered the money charged to their account,” according to the criminal complaint. “Expensive watches or shoes, amongst other factors, are used to identify such targets.”
The women would lure their fraud victims to one of the clubs run by the conspirators. Once there, they would work with the bartender to trick the men into buying expensive drinks.
Defendants named as “B-girls” in the complaint are Victorija Artemjeva, 21, of Latvia; Irina Domkova, 22, of Estonia; Anna Kilimatova, 25, of Latvia; Valeria Matsova, 22, of Estonia; Anastassia Mikrukova, 32, of Estonia; Agnese Rudaka, 22, of Latvia; Kristina Takhalov, 29, of Miami Beach; Marina Turcina, 24, of Latvia; Anastassia Usakova, 25, of Estonia; and Julija Vinogradova, 22, of Latvia.
Artemjeva, according to the complaint, had worked for Simchuk in Estonia. Three other women were planning to work a club Simchuk was opening in Prague.
According to the complaint, the pair of “B-girls” would get about 20 percent of the victim’s bill, while the bartenders or managers would get 10 percent. The rest of the bill would go to the criminal organization.
Problems continue in Rīga
The alleged scheme is reminiscent of similar frauds reported against foreign clients in a number of bars, clubs and lounges in Rīga, Latvia’s capital city.
U.S. and officials from other countries have complained for several years to the Latvian government about the problem. In a November 2008 “warden message,” the U.S. Embassy in Rīga warned travelers to stay clear of bars, clubs and lounges that have been reported to overcharge for drinks.
The warning was updated last month.
“There have been a number of additional reports recently of foreign tourists being charged extortionate prices for drinks in bars,” according to embassy’s message posted on its website. “Some have then been assaulted, threatened or forced to withdraw money from an ATM to pay for the bill.”
The embassy names 10 establishments that are off limits to its staff and their families. Almost all of the businesses are located within the popular Old Town district.
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