Nine owners and managers of more than a dozen 7-Eleven stores on Long Island and in Virginia were charged Monday in a scheme to traffic in workers from Pakistan to work their stores, provide them with identities stolen from U.S. citizens and steal a substantial portion of their wages, prosecutors said.
The workers were allegedly forced to live in housing provided by the franchise owners and pay them cash rent, in addition to the funds that were skimmed off the top of their paychecks when the store owners received payroll from corporate headquarters, authorities said.
More than a dozen workers believed to have been brought to the country illegally were taken into immigration custody, though the scheme involved the hirings of at least 50 illegal immigrants since 2000, according to court documents.
Investigators executed search warrants at about 30 7-Eleven stores across the country as part of the probe, including 10 on Long Island. Suffolk County police, federal Homeland Security investigators, IRS and NYPD officers were seen entering several of the store locations in New York Monday.
Officials said investigators were checking more than 40 additional 7-Eleven stores across the New York area to see if there were similar abuses.
The suspects taken into custody Monday face charges of wire fraud conspiracy, harboring illegal immigrants and aggravated identity theft. Federal authorities have also moved to forfeit the franchise rights to the 14 7-Eleven stores owned by the suspects, as well as the five homes where the illegal immigrants were allegedly forced to stay once they were brought to the United States.
The stolen identities they were equipped with belong to victims from seven states, ranging in age from 8 to 78, and include three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet, officials said.
In a statement, 7-Eleven said the company has been cooperating with federal authorities and will take "aggressive actions to audit the employment status of all its franchisees' employees."
"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," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "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."