Law enforcement agencies arrest six in online auto sales fraud

The defendants allegedly sold nonexistent cars, motorcycles and boats to U.S. victims, the DOJ alleges

Police in Romania, the Czech Republic, the U.K. and Canada have arrested six Romanian citizens accused of advertising and selling nonexistent automobiles on several U.S. websites in a multimillion-dollar scheme, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

The six defendants are accused of "saturating" websites including eBay, Cars.com, CycleTrader.com and AutoTrader.com with detailed advertisements for cars, motorcycles, boats and other high-cost products generally priced between US$10,000 and $45,000, the DOJ said in a press release. The products offered for sale did not exist, the agency said.

The defendants allegedly used co-conspirators to correspond with victims by email, sending fraudulent certificates of title and other information, the DOJ said. In some cases, the defendants allegedly sold cars from nonexistent auto dealerships in the U.S. and created phony websites for those dealerships, the DOJ said.

In one case, the seller allegedly pretended to be the widow of an Iraqi war veteran who was selling her family's mobile home to help care for her children, the DOJ said. The defendants advertised several brands of vehicles, including Lexus, Audi, Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Toyota, Mercedes, Porsche and BMW cars, and Big Dog Mastiff and Ninja motorcycles.

The defendants made more than $3 million selling the nonexistent vehicles, the DOJ said.

A criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday 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 Wednesday. Meme is already jailed in the Czech Republic. 

As part of the scheme, Cojorcaru, Meme, Butoi and others produced high-quality fake passports so that foreign national co-conspirators in U.S., known as arrows, could use the passports as identification to open American bank accounts, the DOJ said.  After the sellers reached an agreement with the would-be buyers, they emailed invoices purporting to be from Amazon Payments, PayPal or other online payments services, with wire transfer instructions included, the DOJ said in a criminal complaint.

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 DOJ said. The fraudulent invoices directed the buyers to send money to U.S. bank accounts that had been opened by the arrows. The arrows collected the illicit proceeds and sent them to the defendants in Europe by wire transfer and other methods. 

The DOJ will seek the defendants' extradition to the U.S., it said.

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.

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.

Tags CycleTrader.comCristea Mirceae-commerceNicolae SimionAurel CojorcaruNicolae GhebosilainternetEmil ButoifraudAutoTrader.comIon PiepteasecuritylegalebayCars.comscamsFabian MemecybercrimeU.S. Department of Justice

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