Home center scammers sentenced

A reported member of the Gambino crime family who helped engineer multiple fraud schemes against Lowe’s, Home Depot and other retail chains was sentenced to 132 months in prison on federal racketeering conspiracy charges, according to The U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

Andrew Merola, also known as "Andrew Knapik," 43, had previously pled guilty to a number of charges relating to his role in a criminal enterprise that included illegal gambling, extortion of lunch truck vendors, no-show construction jobs and embezzlement of union funds. The crimes, which took place in New York and New Jersey between February 2002 and March 2008, also involved a bar code scheme to defraud stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot, Circuit City, Best Buy and Walmart, and identity theft involving stolen credit card information, primarily at Lowe's.

In the bar code scheme, Merola and his co-conspirators went to stores to find and record the bar code numbers of items with significantly lower prices than similar items in the same store. Using their own equipment, they then created a bar code label with the bar code number of the lower-priced item. Merola and his co-conspirators would later return to the stores, place the fake bar code label over the original label on the more expensive merchandise, and then purchase the item at the reduced price.

On various occasions, Merola and his co-conspirators would remove the phony bar code and return the merchandise for a refund or in-store credit based on the item's true price.

In the original 85-page indictment, unsealed on May 8, 2008, federal prosecutors claimed that one of Merola's co-conspirators, 31-year-old India Fugate, went to work for Lowe's as a cashier in Paterson, N.J. In that role, Fugate began stealing customers' personal information when she processed credit card applications, investigators said. That information was passed on to Merola, who then used it as part of fraudulent credit card schemes. Fugate also assisted Merola's crew in their bar code-switching scheme.

Fugate was sentenced on Oct. 18, 2010, to six months in prison and six months of home confinement for her involvement in the bar code and credit card schemes.

Vincent Fichera, 50, was sentenced on Oct. 22, 2010, to a year and a day in prison and a $15,000 fine for his involvement in the bar code scheme.

To date, 14 other defendants who were charged in the original indictment have received various prison sentences. In addition to his 132-month sentence, Merola must complete three years of supervised release, forfeit $100,000 and pay $161,481 in restitution.