WASHINGTON – In a coordinated international takedown, law enforcement officials in Romania, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Canada, acting on provisional arrest requests made by the United States, arrested six Romanian nationals today for their alleged involvement in a sophisticated multimillion dollar cyber fraud scheme that targeted consumers on U.S.-based Internet marketplace websites, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch of the Eastern District of New York and FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos of the New York Field Office.
“As a result of extensive cooperation between U.S. and European law enforcement officials, the defendants have been charged with a scheme to defraud unsuspecting Americans of millions of dollars,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer. “The Department of Justice is committed to finding and prosecuting Internet fraud aggressively, wherever it happens and however hard the perpetrators work to conceal their crimes.”
“Thanks to our international law enforcement partnerships, even the most sophisticated criminal organizations are not beyond our reach, and we will continue our efforts to protect American consumers from these fraud schemes on Internet marketplace websites,” said U.S. Attorney Lynch.
“The FBI is committed to protecting the American public from predatory conduct whether it originates here or abroad,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge Venizelos. “The international nature of many organized crime groups makes it essential for us to work with our partners here and overseas – as we did in this investigation – to rein in the alleged criminals.”
A criminal complaint unsealed today in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York charges Romanian nationals Emil Butoi, 34, Aurel Cojorcaru, 43, Nicolae Ghebosila, 43, Cristea Mircea, 30, Ion Pieptea, 36, and Nicolae Simion, 37, and Albanian national Fabian Meme, 42, each with one count of wire fraud conspiracy and one count of money laundering conspiracy. Butoi, Cojocaru, Meme, Mircea, Pieptea and Simion are also each charged with one count of passport fraud conspiracy.
Butoi, Cojorcaru, Ghebosila, Mircea, Pieptea and Simion were arrested today. Meme is already incarcerated in the Czech Republic.
The government will seek the defendants’ extradition to the United States pursuant to the relevant international treaties.
As alleged in the complaint, the defendants were responsible for saturating Internet marketplace websites including eBay, Cars.com, AutoTrader.com and CycleTrader.com with detailed advertisements for cars, motorcycles, boats and other high-value items generally priced in the $10,000 to $45,000 range. Unbeknownst to the buyers, however, the merchandise did not exist. The defendants allegedly employed co-conspirators who corresponded with victim buyers by email, sending fraudulent certificates of title and other information designed to lure the victims into parting with their money. Sometimes, the defendants allegedly pretended to sell cars from nonexistent auto dealerships in the United States and even created phony websites for these fictitious dealerships. In at least one transaction involving Ghebosila, the “seller” allegedly pretended to be the widow of an Iraq war veteran who was selling her family’s mobile home so that she could care for her children. In other transactions, the defendants allegedly duped victims into sending tens of thousands of dollars for non-existent vehicles, including Lexus, Audi, Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Toyota, Mercedes, Porsche and BMW cars; Big Dog Mastiff and Ninja motorcycles; a Fleetwood Storm motor home; and boats.
As part of the scheme, Cojocaru, Meme, Butoi and others produced high-quality fake passports so that foreign national co-conspirators in the United States, known as “arrows,” could use the passports as identification to open American bank accounts. The complaint alleges that Cojocaru was recorded on video during the investigation displaying new holograms that he was using to create more authentic-looking passports.
According to the complaint, after the “sellers” reached an agreement with the victim buyers, they would often email them invoices purporting to be from Amazon Payments, PayPal or other online payment services, with wire transfer instructions. However, the defendants and their co-conspirators allegedly used counterfeit service marks in designing the invoices so that they would appear identical to communications from legitimate payment services. The fraudulent invoices directed the buyers to send money to the American bank accounts that had been opened by the “arrows.” Finally, the arrows would allegedly collect the illicit proceeds and send them to the defendants in Europe by wire transfer and other methods. For example, the arrows allegedly forwarded Pieptea $18,000 cash in fraud proceeds hidden inside hollowed-out audio speakers. Other arrows allegedly used the proceeds to purchase expensive Audemars Piguet watches, and then sent the watches to the defendants abroad.
According to the complaint, it is estimated that the defendants earned over $3 million from the fraudulent scheme.
If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on the wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy counts, and 10 years in prison on the passport fraud conspiracy count.
The charges in the complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cristina Posa, Vamshi Reddy and Claire Kedeshian of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, and Trial Attorney Carol Sipperly of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section.
The offices of the FBI Legal Attachés in Romania, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Canada and Hungary were instrumental in coordinating efforts with the United States’ international partners, and the Justice Department Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs worked with its counterparts in these countries to effect the provisional arrests and requests for mutual legal assistance, including the forfeiture of illegal proceeds of these crimes. The Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section also provided assistance in the forfeitures.
The U.S. government thanks the Romanian government, in particular the Ministry of Justice, the Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and the Romanian Intelligence Service, for their collaborative efforts throughout this long-term investigation, as well as the Czech National Police, Hungarian National Bureau of Investigation, Metropolitan Police Service in England, Montreal Police Service, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center, Internet Crime Complaint Center, Costa Mesa, Calif., Police Department, Orange County, Calif., District Attorney’s Office and the New York City Police Department for their assistance.