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Former Rosslyn coffee shop owner convicted of credit card fraud

The former owner of a coffee shop in Rosslyn has been convicted of an extensive credit card fraud scheme.

Adiam Berhane, 50, was the co-owner of Caffe Aficionado in Rosslyn, which was open from 2013 until 2016, when the cafe was shut down following a police raid. Federal prosecutors said Berhane used the cafe to process fraudulent payments after obtaining stolen credit card information from the internet — and last week a federal jury in Alexandria agreed.

“A federal jury convicted a Washington, D.C. woman today on multiple charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, trafficking in unauthorized access devices, aggravated identity theft, unlawful possession of 15 or more access devices, and possession of access device-making equipment with intent to defraud,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a press release Friday.

According to prosecutors, Berhane used the stolen credit card info to create fake cards, which were then used in the cafe and to purchase gift cards as well as luxury goods from several local stores. While Caffe Aficionado might have been a front for illegal activity, it was also well regarded for its coffee, garnering 4.5 stars on Yelp and some critical acclaim.

“Caffe Aficionado sits all alone, atop Rosslyn,” one local critic wrote in December 2013. “Even if this ranking is temporary, hopefully it will draw attention to what is one of the finest coffee shops in the area. I love this place, and you will, too.”

Arlington County police were initially tipped off about the crime when someone from out of town, with no connection to Arlington, reported fraudulent attempted credit card charges at the cafe. Most of the fraud involving the coffee shop, however, involved redemption of gift cards purchased with cloned credit cards, according to federal prosecutors.

“More than a third of Caffe Aficionado’s income from June 2013 to July 2016 came from a pattern of highly unusual redemptions of American Express gift cards, with the pattern beginning several months before Caffe Aficionado actually opened in approximately October 2013,” said the press release.

Berhane’s business partner, Clark Donat, pleaded guilty to multiple financial crimes in 2017, including credit card fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Court records show he received a 25 year prison sentence with 11 years suspended. He was not charged in the federal case.

Berhane was initially charged in Arlington County, but a couple of years of legal wrangling — including accusations that defense attorneys had to process thousands of pages of documents by hand under rules set by then-prosecutor Theo Stamos — ultimately resulted in the local charges being dropped in 2019. Federal prosecutors then took up the case.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Berhane will face between 2 and 196 years in prison.

Berhane was previously convicted of a credit card fraud scheme in New York City in the early 2000s. She told ARLnow in early 2014 that what set Caffe Aficionado apart was the service.

“I think it’s all about service. Follow the Golden Rule, it’s not that hard,” she said.

The press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office is below.

According to court records and evidence presented at trial, Adiam Berhane, 50, carried out a fraud scheme from at least 2013 to 2016 in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area involving stolen credit card information that was used to purchase gift cards, expensive luxury goods, and other items from local retail stores. Berhane worked with multiple co-conspirators, including Keith Lemons, 55 of Clinton, Maryland; Tiffany Younger, 50 of Washington, D.C.; and an unindicted co-conspirator (UCC-1), to steal the identities of residents of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and elsewhere, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses to area retailers and financial institutions.

The conspiracy created fraudulent payment cards using credit card manufacturing equipment that investigators found in the apartment that Berhane shared with UCC-1. Berhane would obtain stolen credit card information from the internet and provide it to UCC-1, who would then manufacture the cards, which Berhane then distributed to co-conspirators for use at area stores.

Berhane played a central role in the conspiracy. She bought the stolen card information. She managed the distribution of the fraudulent payment cards. She advised Lemons and Younger on how to carry out fraud in particular stores and decided how Lemons and Younger would be compensated. As part of the scheme, items purchased with victims’ credit card information would sometimes be returned for refunds to bank accounts that Berhane controlled, including her personal account and the accounts of Caffe Aficionado, a coffee shop in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington that Berhane owned and operated with UCC-1.

In addition to fraudulently purchasing items and receiving fraudulent refund proceeds to her bank accounts, Berhane used fraudulent payment cards to purchase gift cards at retail stores which were then redeemed at her business, Caffe Aficionado. More than a third of Caffe Aficionado’s income from June 2013 to July 2016 came from a pattern of highly unusual redemptions of American Express gift cards, with the pattern beginning several months before Caffe Aficionado actually opened in approximately October 2013.

Lemons and Younger previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and are awaiting sentencing.

Berhane faces a mandatory minimum penalty of two years in prison and a maximum penalty of 196 years in prison when sentenced on March 15, 2023. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Jessica D. Aber, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Wayne A. Jacobs, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office Criminal Division; and Andy Penn, Arlington County Chief of Police, made the announcement after U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga accepted the verdict.

This case was prosecuted with the assistance of the Montgomery County Police Department, the FBI Cyber Task Force, the U.S. Postal Office of the Inspector General, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Capitol Police.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jonathan S. Keim and Bibeane Metsch are prosecuting the case.

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