Immigration sweep leads to arrest of 7-Eleven owner

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Law enforcement officials outside Cutchogue 7-Eleven Monday morning.

Nine people have been arrested as part of a nationwide immigration and identity theft investigation as federal agents seized 7-Eleven stores across Long Island including the stores in Cutchogue and Greenport Monday morning, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The eight men and one woman arrested conspired to steal the identities of more than 20 citizens, then hired dozens of illegal immigrants to work at 14 7-Eleven locations on Long Island and Virginia, federal officials said.

The accused gave the illegal immigrants false names to dodge authorities, stole portions of their wages and forced them to live in housing the defendants owned, according to the statement.

“The defendants used 7-Eleven as a platform from which to run an elaborate criminal enterprises,” said United States Attorney Loretta Lynch. “In bedroom communities across Long Island and Virginia, the defendants not only systematically employed illegal immigrants, but concealed their crimes by raiding the cradle and the grave to steal the identities of children and even the dead. Finally, these defendants ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses, in effect creating a modern day plantation system.”

Farrukh Baig, 57, and Bushra Baig, 49, a married Head of the Harbor couple who operated 12 of the 7-Eleven stores, were among those arrested in the scheme, officials said.

Mr. Baig, who did not answer cell phone calls from a Suffolk Times reporter Monday, owned the 7-Eleven franchises in Greenport and Cutchogue, which were seized Monday morning by federal authorities. The stores will soon re-open and will be operated by the 7-Eleven corporation, federal officials said. As of 5:30 p.m. the Greenport store had reopened, but the parking lot of the Cutchogue location was still closed off by police tape.

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The 7-Eleven store in Greenport remained closed at 1 p.m. Monday.

Mr. Baig’s brothers — Zahid Baig, 52, of Chesapeake, Va. and Shannawaz Baig, 62, of Virginia Beach, Va. — along with co-defendants Malik Yousaf, 51, of South Setauket, Tariq Rana, 34, of Chesapeake, Va. and Ramon Nanas, 49, of Great River, helped to “manage and control the stores,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition, 49-year-old Azhar Zia of Great River and 48-year-old Ummar Uppal of Islip Terrace, were indicted separately as owners of two other 7-Eleven locations in Suffolk County.

Since 2000, the nine arrested “collectively and systematically employed” more than 50 illegal immigrants from Pakistan and the Philippines at the various 7-Eleven franchises, federal officials said.

The defendants stole 25 identities — with victims ranging in age from 8 to 78 years old, including three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet — which they then passed off onto the illegal immigrants working in their stores, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Farrukh and Bushra Baig even allowed employees to use their own personal social security numbers in some instances, officials said.

The Baigs then submitted this false information to 7-Eleven corporate headquarters, which issued wages to the illegal immigrants, prosecutors said. But the nine defendants took “significant portions” of the immigrants wages, which were always paid in cash, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. The local employees would make between $350 and $500 per week and would also have to pay rent back to the Baigs from that money, prosecutors said.

Ms. Lynch said money earned from the scheme was used by the Baigs to purchase large homes and was mostly kept in the family. Federal agents answered the door at Farrukh and Bushra Baig’s house in Head of the Harbor Minday, where they are continuing to investigate. Farrukh Baig purchased the Head of the Harbor house for $1.75 million in 2004, property records show.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Federal agents are continuing to investigate at this Head of the Harbor house, where they say Farrukh and Bushra Baig live.

Employees worked 100 or more hours per week in some instances, but were only paid for as little as 25 hours in a week, prosecutors said.

Eighteen foreign nationals were also taken into custody today for immigration purposes.

“The defendants have been exploiting vulnerable individuals who, due to their immigration status, may have been afraid to come forward and report possible wrongdoing by their employers,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber. “This multi-agency investigation illustrates our commitment to fighting against employers who abuse immigrant employees for their own financial gain.”

The nine defendants will be arraigned in federal court in Central Islip Monday, federal officials said.

If convicted, the defendants face 20 years in prison for wire fraud conspiracy and alien harboring charges, as well as multiple counts of aggravated identity theft, each of which carries a mandatory, consecutive two-year sentence, prosecutors said.

The investigation is ongoing and investigators are currently looking at 40 more stores across the country, federal officials said. Investigators are also looking into how information on the stolen identities was gathered.  The investigation began in 2010 and some employees complained to Suffolk Police about the working conditions at area 7-Elevens back in 2011, law enforcement officials said.

“[It was] a decidedly un-American practice,” Ms. Lynch said.

7-Eleven offered the following statement Monday afternoon: “Today the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn announced it had filed two indictments related to alleged wrongdoing by independent 7-Eleven franchisees. 7-Eleven, Inc. has cooperated with the government’s investigation. All of our franchise owners must operate their stores in accordance with laws and the 7-Eleven franchise agreement. 7-Eleven, Inc. will take aggressive actions to audit the employment status of all its franchisees’ employees. 7-Eleven, Inc. is taking steps to assume corporate operation of the stores involved in this action so we can continue to serve our guests. We continue to cooperate with federal authorities in this matter.”

But Ms. Lynch said the company did little to stop the scheme.

“7-Eleven made little to no effort to secure integrity of their payroll system,” Ms. Lynch said. She said one of the identities was clocked in at stores in New York and Virginia at the same time and date.

One unit at Driftwood Cove in Greenport, one block from Mr. Baig’s Greenport store, was used to harbor illegal immigrants, according to the federal indictment. Nobody came to the door when a reporter knocked Monday morning.

Southold Town property records show Mr. Baig also owns a house less than a quarter mile from the Cutchogue store, which he bought for $75,000 in 1998. Nobody came to the door when a reporter knocked there as well.

psquire@timesreview.com