It was one of those deals people dream of finding on Internet auction sites — a 2005 Honda Accord for sale for $2,700 by an American serviceman about to be transferred overseas.
An eager buyer sent money to a wire transfer counter inside a Houston Walmart. There was no military man on the other end, though, but a swindler who had traveled from Miami to Texas to pick up the money using a fake identity. Most of the cash was to go to shadowy figures who orchestrated the cyberfraud from halfway around the world in Romania.
In recent years, South Florida has become a hub for middlemen working for Romanian crime syndicates that post vehicles and other big-ticket items on auction sites in hopes of duping American bargain hunters who send off money and never get anything back, court records show. At least 23 people have been charged locally since 2008 with participating in such schemes, most accused of picking up wire transfers using bogus identities.
Romania, a former Soviet satellite state in Eastern Europe, has become well known in the past decade as a base for Internet scams, particularly auction fraud. There are no official estimates of how many Americans have been victimized by these groups, but a member of one fraud ring acknowledged in court last month that he oversaw about 180 money pickups — many in Broward and Miami-Dade counties — that took in nearly $481,000 in a year.
Romanian national Ciprian Jdera's admission came as part of a plea deal to a single federal count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which could carry up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced May 2.
FBI surveillance at a Sunny Isles Beach bar caught Jdera, 25, talking about "how stupid Americans are for sending them money" and how he had an arrangement with a Western Union agent in Bucharest, Romania's capital, who handled about $2.5 million in crime proceeds sent there, court records show.
"These are huge syndicates, not just an individual sitting in a garage in the dark," said Michael Galvin, spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Southeast Florida & the Caribbean. "They are predators on the sideline waiting for an opportunity to attack the weakest."
Many of the victims wired money, exactly what the Better Business Bureau and other consumer protection groups caution against. Some online auction sites have banned wire transfers, while others including Craigslist warn people that "only a scammer will ask" for the money to be sent that way.
"Never, ever wire money to anyone you don't know," Galvin said. "When it's lost, it's lost. You should try to use a credit card so you have a third party that could come to your defense."
Court records show that the crooks making the cash pickups — known as "arrows" or "runners" — shed identities easily. Adrian Ghighina, a Romanian national, was caught with six fake passports after his October 2009 arrest in Miami Beach. He admitted last month in Illinois federal court to being involved in an Internet fraud ring since 2005 and collecting more than $720,000. He is awaiting sentencing.
Some arrows have used phony passports to open bank accounts in South Florida. They sometimes drive as a group out of the state to make multiple money pickups in a single city, court records show.
A Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury indicted seven Romanians in October 2008, accusing them of bilking people who thought they were buying boats, vehicle trailers and personal watercraft over the Internet. When one of the suspects was arrested outside the Walmart in Cooper City, he had $33,000 in cash in his car along with Western Union money order receipts for more than $88,000, court records show.
Three members of that ring have taken plea deals, agreeing to prison sentences of no more than two years. The other four have not been taken into custody and were believed to be in Romania when the indictment was issued, court records indicate.
Within the past 15 months, nine more people have taken plea deals in South Florida federal courts related to Romanian Internet fraud rings. In addition, seven suspected middlemen were indicted last month by a Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury with three of those charged — a Romanian and two Moldovans — still at large.
One of those who recently took a deal was 24-year-old Vadim Gherghelejiu of Moldova, a Romanian-speaking former republic of the Soviet Union, who received a 27-month prison term. He was recruited into a ring when he was fishing on a South Florida dock and someone overheard him talking in his native language, said Herbert M. Cohen, his attorney.
"Vadim was never involved in any criminal activities before this," Cohen said.
Less than a year later, Gherghelejiu was detained at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when a Transportation Security Administration officer noticed a dense object in his carry-on luggage, court records show. It turned out he had a box of 452 blank driver's licenses from Louisiana, Maine and Arizona, as well as $5,000 in cash.
He had been boarding a flight to Chicago with other "arrows" to recover money wired there. Among those with Gherghelejiu was Antonie Bisericanu, another 24-year-old Moldovan who subsequently pleaded guilty to making the money pick-up at the Houston Walmart for the Honda. After taking a plea deal last year, Bisericanu was slated to be deported, court records show.
The recent crackdown in South Florida may have spooked some people affiliated with the Romanian crime rings. In a December meeting between Jdera and a government witness, Jdera discussed how a lot of "arrows" were leaving the country because of recent arrests, court records show.
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