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.
One desperate family believed Ruiz to be a legitimate officer, and turned to him when a family member needed real legal help.
A man identified as M.H.R. in court documents, was a legal permanent resident married to a U.S. citizen. M.H.R. owned a New Jersey construction company and had proper legal documentation, which he presented when Ruiz visited one of M.H.R.’s construction sites while posing as an immigrations officer in 2007. Ruiz looked at M.H.R.’s documents, then stepped away to take a phone call, court documents say. When he returned, Ruiz said he there was a deportation order for M.H.R. Ruiz demanded $5,000 in money orders, which he said would go toward new documents.
Ruiz even drove M.H.R.’s wife to a post office, where she filled out a money order to INS. But the money never went to the feds. Ruiz wrote his own name over the “INS” label and cashed the orders himself.
M.H.R. was never deported—unbeknownst to him there had never been a deportation order in his name—so his family believed Ruiz had saved them. And when M.H.R.’s sister, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was detained by real immigrations officials later that year, they turned to Ruiz for help.
The woman, identified as S.R., was placed under a deportation order, with an ankle monitor tracking her movements until she was removed from the country. Desperate, M.H.R.’s family reached out to Ruiz, who told them he could fix S.R.’s legal status and remove her ankle monitor for $5,000. Once again, the family paid up. But this time, the deportation order was real. S.R. sent to Guatemala several days after Ruiz promised to save her.
Apparently immigrants were safer with Ruiz behind bars. Two months after completing his prison sentence for the 2010 scam, he was allegedly fleecing immigrants in South Carolina. By March, he was back under arrest.
A U.S. District Court in South Carolina has charged him with four counts counts of blackmail and four counts of fraudulently impersonating an officer to secure property, among several other felony counts. He is being held without bond.