US, Romanian Authorities Target Internet Fraud Scheme

Romanian law enforcement officials on Thursday executed 117 searches targeting more than 100 people in an ongoing effort with the U.S. Department of Justice to break up a large Internet auction fraud scheme, the DOJ said.

The coordinated effort between Romanian and U.S. law enforcement agencies has resulted in the arrest of more than 100 people in Romania and the U.S. since 2010, the DOJ said Friday.

In many of the cases, conspirators located in Romania would post items for sale, including cars, motorcycles and boats, on Internet auction and other websites, the DOJ said in a press release. They would tell interested buyers in the U.S. to send money by wire transfer to fictitious names that they claimed to be employees of an escrow company.

The victims would not receive the items they paid for. Victims have lost more than US $10 million to the scheme, the DOJ said.

After the victims transferred the money, the participants in Romania would tell co-conspirators in the U.S. how to retrieve the wired funds and where to send the funds. The U.S. participants, called "arrows," would provide false identification documents to money wire services such as Western Union or MoneyGram International, the DOJ said.

The arrows would then wire the funds, minus a percentage kept as commission, to their co-conspirators in Romania, the DOJ said. In some cases, arrows in the U.S. set up bank accounts to which victims could wire funds.

A wide group of law enforcement agencies have participated in the effort, the DOJ said. Among them are the Romanian General Inspectorate of Police, Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, the Romanian Directorate for Investigating Infractions of Organized Crime and Terrorism, the Romanian Intelligence Service, the General Directorate of Jandarmeria in Romania; and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the DOJ's Criminal Division, and the U.S. attorneys' offices for the Southern District of Florida, the Western District of Pennsylvania and the Eastern District of Missouri.

Since May 2010, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida has prosecuted "numerous" people involved in the scheme, the DOJ said. Five people from Romania, Moldova or Florida have been convinced of conspiracy to committee wire fraud.

In February, the Florida authorities charged seven people in a 21-count indictment. Four have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and three, from Moldova or Romania, remain at large.

On July 8, a Romanian citizen was arrested and charged in Florida with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. A second Romanian was arrested Tuesday.

An investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania led to the arrests of seven defendants, including one person in Pittsburgh, three people in Missouri, two people in Texas, and one in Kentucky, the DOJ said. Four of those people have pleaded guilty to charges, with two in St. Louis sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $18,365 on forgery and passport fraud charges.

Officers from the Houston Police Department arrested two people in June after they received $2,890 from Western Union and MoneyGram at a Wal-Mart store, the DOJ said. The two defendants presented false identification to a store clerk, the agency said.

A search of the two defendants' residence produced a large amount of U.S. money, computers, printers, plastic for creating false IDs, multiple mobile phones and false IDs with one defendant's picture, the DOJ said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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