OAKLAND -- A Japanese citizen pleaded guilty on Friday to scamming two American banks out of more than $550,000 by using debit cards to buy goods in Japan that he sold for cash, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Yasuhiro Watanabe entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Oakland to engaging in a scheme to defraud Compass Bank and Bank of America from 2009 to September 2013, federal prosecutors said.

Watanabe, 39, who has been in federal custody since being arrested at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Oct. 27, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in a plea agreement, according to U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.

In the plea agreement, the defendant admitted to recruiting people from Japan about once a month to travel with him to the United States to open bank accounts at Compass Bank and Bank of America.

After the accounts were set up, Watanabe would send by wire transfer $1,000 to $2,000 from accounts in Japan to the two American banks in the names of his co-conspirators, according to Haag. The accounts were opened in branches of the two banks located in Northern California and in Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

He would normally pay each of the co-conspirators about $1,000 and cover their travel costs, prosecutors said.

Watanabe then would ask the account holders to obtain debit cards for the accounts and give him the cards, which he then used in Japan to buy goods valued in excess of the balances in the accounts and then sell the goods for cash, according to prosecutors.

His scheme cost Compass Bank and Bank of America more than $550,000 over the four years it lasted.

Watanabe is to be sentenced on July 11 in the federal court in Oakland and faces up to 30 years in prison plus a fine of $1 million on the count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, prosecutors said.



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