At least 20 people involved in a Twin Cities organized crime ring that stole $20 million worth of smartphones and other electronics and sold them in black markets overseas were convicted Friday of conspiracy and other related charges, federal authorities said.
The Mustafa Organization, run by six brothers from the metro area, used runners to fly across the country to steal phones outright or to buy them from retailers with false identities under bogus server contracts. The phones would then be resold overseas under the cover of the wireless phone stores the family owned, authorities say.
Over the past eight years, authorities estimate, the family made $4 million selling the stolen phones and tablets for exorbitant profits in black markets of the Middle East and China. Those profits were then redistributed among themselves and used to pay for rent, utilities and other expenses to keep their stores running, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Andy Luger.
Network of cellphone stores
The 20 defendants were convicted in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis after pleading guilty to conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation of stolen goods, among other charges. At least six of those convicted are members of the Mustafa family with ties to the ownership of 13 phone stores in the metro area.
The Mustafa brothers are Jamal, Edwan, Talal, Bilal, Naser and Nizer. Among them, the men own wireless stores in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Robbinsdale, records show. Authorities say the family operates these stores, ostensibly as a single unit — transferring cellphone inventory and allegedly commingling illicit profits with legitimate sales.
Jamal Mustafa, who operates six Twin Cities-area cellular phone stores, is considered the patriarch of the family and the “apparent leader of the conspiracy,” according to authorities.
The Mustafa Organization also falsified loan applications to get approved for vehicles that transported their stolen merchandise and made fraudulent credit-card transactions, using the proceeds to buy more phones and pay operating expenses for their wireless stores, court documents show.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 3 million mobile devices were stolen in 2013, which nearly doubled from 2012.
Last year, Minnesota became the first state to require smartphone manufacturers to include a “kill switch” that would allow users to disable their phones if lost or stolen.
In response to great pressure from law enforcement, the nation’s four major wireless providers — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — agreed to begin sharing a database of serial numbers tied to stolen phones. Theoretically, that means any phone reported stolen will no longer function on any of the provider networks.
About 300 law enforcement personnel from various agencies were involved in the bust, including 100 U.S. Secret Service analysts and agents who came in from across the country to aid local authorities in a coordinated series of arrests last August.
Staff writer Paul McEnroe contributed to this report.