Santa Ana, California - A former bank branch manager at Wells Fargo pleaded guilty today to one felony count of bank fraud for using his position to help launder proceeds of a tax fraud and identity theft scheme that used false identities and bogus Republic of Armenia passports to fraudulently obtain $14 million in tax refunds from the Internal Revenue Service.

Hakop Zakaryan, 34, of Glendale, entered a guilty plea this afternoon before United States District Judge Andrew J. Guilford, who scheduled a November 18 sentencing hearing, at which time Zakaryan will face a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison.

Zakaryan admitted in his plea agreement that he used his position as bank manager in Glendale to “unfreeze” bank accounts that Wells Fargo had frozen because of suspected fraud. To do so, Zakaryan called the bank’s loss prevention department and provided false information to unfreeze the bank accounts, even though he knew that the schemers were using fraudulent identities, according to the plea agreement. Zakaryan admitted that he assisted the schemers because they paid him thousands of dollars in cash.

For example, in July 2014, Zakaryan called the bank’s loss prevention department and provided false information to unfreeze the bank account, which helped the schemers to withdraw $29,453 in cash from that account. Zakaryan admitted that he unfroze the account in exchange for approximately $3,000 in cash from the schemers.

The underlying Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) scheme involved schemers who used false identities and fake Republic of Armenia passports to open hundreds of bank accounts that were used to launder funds fraudulently received from the IRS. A total of 18 defendants, including Zakaryan and Glendale lawyer Arthur S. Charchian, have been charged in that scheme, which involved approximately 7,000 fraudulent tax returns that cumulatively sought about $38 million in refunds. The IRS issued about $14 million in refunds. The fraudulent tax returns were filed and the bank accounts were opened with personal identifying information that had been stolen from thousands of victims.

The federal investigation into the SIRF scheme has resulted in 12 convictions, and the seizure of four residential properties and more than $700,000 from bank accounts. Last month, a civil forfeiture action was commenced against another property worth approximately $1.5 million. One defendant has been extradited from Colombia, four defendants remain fugitives from justice, and two defendants are scheduled to go to trial later this year.

The case against Zakaryan and the defendants in the SIRF scheme is being investigated by IRS Criminal Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Charles E. Pell of the Santa Ana Branch Office. The civil forfeiture action is being pursued by Assistant United States Attorney Brent A. Whittlesey of the Asset Forfeiture Section.