Vista woman sentenced in bank fraud case - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Vista woman sentenced in bank fraud case

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A 26-year-old Vista woman was sentenced Monday in Los Angeles to five years in federal prison for helping to lead an international crime ring that tricked people into sharing personal information used to drain their bank accounts.

After a six-week trial last year, Nichole Michelle Merzi was found guilty of bank and wire fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, computer fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy charges.

Along with her then-boyfriend -- Kenneth Joseph Lucas II -- Merzi was a lead defendant in an indictment returned in the fall of 2009 as part of "Operation Phish Phry," a multi-national probe that led to charges against 100 people, federal prosecutors said.

"The harm done by (Merzi's) activities is undisputed," according to the government's sentencing memo. "Although (Bank of America) and Wells Fargo reimbursed the individual victims whose accounts were compromised, it is undeniable that the scheme affected a large number of victims," given that the illegal phishing transfers "occurred in amounts around $1,000 at a time."

As a result of the investigation, 47 people have been convicted in federal court in Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Lucas was sentenced in 2011 in two federal cases -- one stemming from the phishing scheme and one from an indoor marijuana grow operation that he constructed -- for a total of 13 years in federal prison, prosecutors said.

Merzi has been in custody since she was found guilty at trial in March 2011.

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