Investigators first learned of a man named Abraham Riojos in 2014.
They believed Riojos was a Mexican from Tijuana who was illegally collecting Social Security benefits by using false United States addresses. One address, according to court records, was for a mailbox rental facility in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border. The other was a few miles north of the border, in Chula Vista, Calif., and belonged to a homeowner who told investigators that Riojos had never lived there.
An investigator with the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General found that the man had, in fact, been living in the United States illegally as Abraham Riojos, a name that belonged to another man – a 59-year-old born in Texas and living in Florida.
For nearly four decades, Andres Avelino Anduaga, a 66-year-old man from Tijuana, assumed Riojos’s identity – complete with a fraudulent birth certificate, Social Security number, identification number and a U.S. passport. The documents allowed Anduaga to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in government benefits under Riojos’s name, starting in 1989. For the next 27 years, Anduaga collected nearly $361,000 in Social Security, disability, health and food benefits, according to a criminal complaint.
Anduaga, who also went by the names Jose Gonzalez-Cardoza and Jose Reyes, had been deported at least twice. Yet he managed to come back and travel freely between the United States and Mexico, crossing the border multiple times a week using Riojos’s identity, court records say.
Anduaga was arrested and charged in November with theft of public property and illegally reentering the United States. As part of a plea agreement reached Thursday, he agreed to pay back the government benefits that he fraudulently obtained.
“The programs that this defendant stole from – for decades – provide benefits to America’s most needy,” Adam Braverman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said in a statement.
Investigators did not say how Anduaga found Riojos’s identity. It also does not appear that the real Riojos was aware that Anduaga had been using his identity for 37 years. Riojos, who lives outside Fort Myers, Florida, has never received any Social Security payments under his number, court records say.
The Washington Post was unable to reach Riojos on Monday, but court records say he provided investigators with his driver’s license and birth certificate to prove he is the real Abraham Riojos. He also said he began using the last name Riojas in the 1980s after his father started going by that name.
Court records say Anduaga had been in the United States since at least the 1970s, when he would’ve been in his 20s. He was convicted of misdemeanor drunken driving in 1974 and forgery in 1978 – both in California’s Kern County under the name Jose Reyes. He was convicted of multiple other crimes and served time in a California prison in 1989 and 1990, both while using Riojos’s name.
He began using Riojos’s identity in 1980, when a California Department of Motor Vehicles identification number and a Social Security number were given to Anduaga under his assumed name.
He applied for and was awarded Social Security and disability benefits in 1989, receiving monthly payments until Aug. 1, 2016, court records say.
Authorities say Anduaga was deported in 1994 and 2000, both under the name Jose Reyes.
He faces up to 12 years in federal prison and a fine of up to almost $972,000. He will be sentenced on May 29.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Kristine Phillips