Michael Ruiz made undocumented immigrants an offer they couldn’t refuse: pay him or get deported.
Except Ruiz was not an immigration officer as he claimed, but a conman who scammed immigrants for $200,000 before he was sent to prison for more than six years in 2010.
But weeks after Donald Trump was elected, Ruiz was allegedly back at it again, this time targeting immigrants in South Carolina.
And business was better than ever: In just six weeks, Ruiz swindled $70,000 from immigrants, authorities allege.
When Ruiz was released from a New Jersey federal prison on probation on Sept. 23, 2016, he found himself in a country newly anxious over immigration.
By mid-November, Ruiz was living in South Carolina and up to his old tricks, arrest warrants obtained by The Daily Beast claim. And this time, he made money at a record pace.
Beginning around November 23, two months after his release from prison, Ruiz allegedly began posing as a law enforcement officer.
He located immigrants by “word of mouth,” South Carolina’s Greenville Police Department claims.
By January, he had allegedly found six local immigrants and offered drivers’ licenses and the chance to become citizens all for thousands of dollars.
If they didn’t pay him, cops say, they’d be kicked out of the country.
Over the course of two months, Ruiz extorted over $70,000 from the six immigrants, police allege.
Among his earnings were exorbitant fees for Social Security numbers, which police say were fake or stolen.
“The Social Security number given to one victim belonged to a deceased subject while the second victim received a fictitious number,” police said in an arrest warrant, adding that Ruiz “threaten[ed] deportation of their families if the victims didn’t provide the money” for the stolen identities.
Ruiz even impersonated lawmen in everyday life, according to police. In January, he stormed into a Greenville auto supply store complaining about a purchase.
During an argument, Ruiz allegedly boasted that he was a deputy with a local sheriff’s office and that he had recently arrested three of the customers watching the altercation.
(A store employee confirmed to The Daily Beast that an irate customer had impersonated an officer in the store that month.)
When local police confronted him about posing as a deputy, Ruiz allegedly told them he was an officer with the New York City Police Department who worked in Times Square, even giving an NYPD officer’s badge number.
Fittingly, federal prosecutors called Ruiz a “serial” impersonator in 2010, after he pleaded guilty to posing as an officer and fleecing New Jersey and Florida immigrants for $200,000 by coercing them to buy fake documents. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The scam was ruinous for its victims, prosecutors said. Among his victims were undocumented immigrants, like an Ecuadorian man identified only as C.M. in court documents.
When Ruiz posed as an immigrations officer in 2006, he told C.M. he could help his family immigrate. C.M. handed over $5,000 for his wife, and asked Ruiz to help bring two other family members over.
But Ruiz demanded more money, telling C.M. to pay $17,500 or none of his family would be allowed into the country. C.M. didn’t have the cash.
His family remained in Ecuador while he remained undocumented in New Jersey, $5,000 poorer than when he met Ruiz.
Other victims were legal permanent residents. One, called D.I. in court documents, was a legal resident from Ecuador when he met Ruiz in 2006.
Ruiz identified himself as an “INS [Immigration and Naturalization Services] sheriff,” and told S.I. he could help him obtain legal status for his wife and three children. S.I. paid Ruiz $36,000 to expedite his family’s immigration paperwork.
Ruiz also threw two discount cars into the bargain, telling S.I. he would sell him two government-seized vans for $10,000. But $46,000 later, S.I. was left without the vehicles, and his family without the expensive immigration documents.