Washington, DC - 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 Romanian nationals Emil Butoi, Aurel Cojocaru, Nicolae Ghebosila, Cristea Mircea, Ion Pieptea, and Nicolae Simion. Another defendant, Albanian national Fabian Meme, is already incarcerated in the Czech Republic.
The U.S. arrest warrants, unsealed today, were issued in the Eastern District of New York based on a federal complaint alleging the defendants’ involvement in a sophisticated multi-million-dollar cyber fraud scheme that targeted consumers on U.S.-based Internet marketplace websites. The government will seek the defendants’ extradition to the United States pursuant to the relevant international treaties.
The charges and arrests were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; Lanny A. Breuer, Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice; and George Venizelos, Assistant Director in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office.
As alleged in the complaint, the defendants were responsible for saturating Internet marketplace websites, such as eBay.com, 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 so-called sellers, who worked for the defendants, corresponded with the victim buyers by e-mail, sending fraudulent certificates of title and other information designed to lure the victims into parting with their money. Sometimes, they pretended to sell cars from non-existent auto dealerships in the United States and even created phony websites for these fictitious dealerships. In at least one transaction, involving defendant Ghebosila, the purported “seller” 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 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 alleged in the complaint, defendants 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. As alleged in the complaint, Cojocaru was recorded on video during the investigation displaying new holograms that he was using to create more authentic-looking passports.
As alleged in the complaint, after the fake “sellers” reached an agreement with the victim buyers, they would often e-mail them invoices purporting to be from Amazon Payments, PayPal, or other online payment services, with wire transfer instructions. However, these invoices were also fraudulent—the defendants and their co-conspirators 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 collect the illicit proceeds and send them to the defendants in Europe by wire transfer and other methods. For example, the “arrows” forwarded defendant Pieptea $18,000 cash in fraud proceeds hidden inside hollowed-out audio speakers. Other “arrows” 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.
Each defendant is charged with wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, and defendants Butoi, Cojocaru, Meme, Mircea, Pieptea, and Simion are also charged with passport fraud conspiracy. If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment on each of the wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy counts and 10 years’ imprisonment on the passport fraud conspiracy count.
“As alleged, the defendants ran a sophisticated fraud scheme that used the Internet to reach across the globe and into the homes of unsuspecting Americans. They utilized high-tech counterfeiting techniques to create an aura of online legitimacy. This virtual con game nevertheless cost Americans real money. Thanks to our international partnerships, even the most sophisticated and tech-savvy criminal organizations are not beyond the reach of law enforcement. No matter how complex the scheme, we will spare no effort in protecting American consumers from fraud on the Internet,” stated United States Attorney Lynch.
“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.”
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Venizelos stated, “The FBI is committed to protecting the American public from predatory conduct whether it originates here or abroad. 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.”
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 Department of Justice’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 the illegal proceeds of these crimes. The Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section also provided assistance with the forfeitures.
The U.S. government thanks the Romanian government, particularly the Ministry of Justice, the Romanian Internal Intelligence Service, and the Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, for their collaborative efforts throughout this long-term investigation, and also thanks 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 (IOC2), Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Costa Mesa Police Department, Orange County District Attorney’s Office, and the New York City Police Department for their assistance.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Cristina Posa, Vamshi Reddy, and Claire Kedeshian, and Trial Attorney Carol Sipperly of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section.
The charges in the complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.