Costa Mesa police helped take down an international fraud ring that allegedly stole millions of dollars by selling nonexistent cars and other high-priced items, the department announced Friday.
An organized crime syndicate run by a Romanian national orchestrated the elaborate online schemes, according to an indictment filed in a New York federal court and unsealed Thursday.
Syndicate members flooded websites like Cars.com, eBay and AutoTrader.com with ads that lured victims into paying for things that didn't actually exist, usually making $10,000 to $45,0000 per sale according to the charges.
Suspects allegedly went as far as creating fake websites for car dealerships, emailing bogus invoices and producing convincing forged ownership titles.
In 2007, Costa Mesa police Det. Eugene Kim began investigating fraud allegations that were ultimately linked to the syndicate, according to the department.
A swath of officers from CMPD's Special Investigations Unit worked with federal authorities to develop their case against the syndicate.
Eventually, law enforcement officials discovered fraud cases throughout the west coast and across the nation allegedly perpetrated by the group.
Federal officials Thursday fingered Nicolae Popescu, a Romanian fugitive, as the syndicate's leader.
The International Criminal Police Organization issued a notice seeking Popescu, and the FBI has released wanted posters as well.
Six defendants were already arrested during an internationally coordinated takedown in December, according to a statement from the federal court, but Popescu and six others remain at large, according to an announcement from Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
"Using forged documents and phony websites, for years Popescu and his criminal syndicate reached across the ocean to pick the pockets of hard working Americans looking to purchase cars," Lynch said. "They thought their distance would insulate them from law enforcement scrutiny. They were wrong."
Through their scheme that targeted mostly American victims, the crew allegedly made more than $3 million.