Suburban store owners face fraud charges in welfare scheme

 
 
Updated 11/12/2021 12:54 PM

Nine people are facing federal fraud charges stemming from an investigation targeting convenience stores where operators and workers are accused of cashing federally backed food assistance checks for items not allowed, oftentimes at inflated prices.

Authorities targeted stores in Addison, Elgin, Mount Prospect, Melrose Park and Chicago for scheming to defraud the "Women, Infants and Children" nutrition initiative that provides monetary assistance to lower income mothers and their young children.

 

According to court papers, the nine individuals named in the indictment are accused of redeeming "millions of dollars in WIC checks" for items not covered by the program for nearly a decade. Prosecutors said store workers often charged customers using their WIC checks higher prices on the ineligible items.

Several suburban residents and stores were named in the indictment, including:

• Ersely Arita-Mejia, 39, of Arlington Heights, who worked at Star Mini Market in Mount Prospect.

• Fortino Hernandez, 38, of Addison, who worked at Supermercado El Grande in Addison.

• Marisol Zavala, 29, of McHenry, who worked at an unidentified convenience store in Elgin.

• Ehab Khraiwish, 27, of Tinley Park, owner of Mercado La Estrella in Elgin.

• Alaa Hamdan, 35, of Chicago, who worked at Supermercado El Grande in Addison.

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Two Chicago men who owned convenience stores in Chicago were also charged, as well as a Chicago man who worked at a Melrose Park store and a Melrose Park man who worked at a Melrose Park store.

All nine are facing at least 16 counts, while some are facing additional tax fraud counts.

The indictment also lists several unidentified workers at several stores who authorities believe are also responsible for defrauding the program as well.

Officials at the U.S. District Attorney's Northern Illinois office said if the nine are convicted of the charges, a judge "must impose a reasonable sentence under federal statutes and the advisory U.S. sentencing guidelines."

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