A Wisconsin woman who thought she had landed a job shipping clothing to Russian orphans inadvertently found herself at the center of an international weapons smuggling ring, unwittingly sending stolen sniper scopes, night-vision goggles and military gear to Russia, according to police.
Police say the woman, who received the work-from-home job offer through a Website, was likely a patsy in a scheme to ship sensitive equipment purchased with stolen credit cards.
Police, now working with the FBI, would not identify the 44-year-old woman from Ripon, Wisc., and said they had not yet determined who was behind the smuggling ring or fraudulent job offer. A phone number associated with the woman's addressed listed in the search warrant was disconnected.
"If 'ABC Arms Dealer' in California sends a package with a rifle scope directly to Russia that is going to raise a red flag and likely get stopped and searched," Capt. Bill Wallner of the Ripon Police Department told ABC News.com. "But a package being sent from a private citizen in Wisconsin might not get searched. That's why they were using her. They were paying her to change the packaging and address labels."
Authorities were tipped off June 7 when a firearms dealer from Iowa became suspicious about a discrepancy between the billing address and shipping address on a recently purchased $1,600 rifle scope. The dealer determined the scope had been purchased with a stolen credit card and called the cops.
Police went to the woman's house because the address the Iowa firearms dealer was told to send the gear to. When police arrived, there were several boxes outside the woman's home that had just been sent to her, police said.
Police investigating the matter learned the women had received several packages a day for weeks, each of them addressed to the woman's home, but in the name of the individuals whose cards had been stolen.
When police served the woman with a search warrant, they found 20 packages in her home waiting to be mailed. They found and ultimately confiscated $15,500 worth of rifle and sniper scopes, night vision equipment, GPS units, camouflage clothing.
For now, police believe the woman was an unwitting participant in the fraud and "probably won't be charged."
"She's been very cooperative. We seized her computer and the messages she received, verified everything she told us," Wallner said. "When we came knocking on her door, she was very surprised. She was pretty devastated about it and couldn't believe she'd been sucked in."
Wisconsin Woman Got $30 for Each Package She Mailed to Russia
Police have so far identified 22 victims whose credit card numbers were stolen to make the purchase. Only two of them had realized illegal purchases had been made on their cards before being contacted by the authorities.
The packages were all to be shipped to several addresses in the Russian city of Novorossijik, located on the Black Sea, between the Balkans and the Middle East. She received $30 for each package, paid through an online PayPal account.
Wallner said the woman was hired by a company that called itself Switzerland Watches and which only communicated to her via email. He said she believed the company's excuses that the use of different names was part of their "purchasing procedures."
"The average person would think this is too good to be true," said Wallner. "But every day people are getting ripped off in online at-home-employment scams. She believed it was legit. She filled out an application and they even told her they had run a background check."
The first five packages she received, she was told to open and inspect, included items like diapers and baby clothing. They were destined, she was told, for an orphanage. She was later told not to open the other boxes containing the military gear, which she assumed were also children's items.
Wallner said about 75 percent of the merchandise had been returned to the companies that initially shipped them.
The FBI, which is now leading the investigation, said it was still too early to tell who was behind the fraud or how large the ring is.
"We are looking into the matter," said Monica Shipley, a spokeswoman in the Milwaukee FBI field office. "Time will tell how big this is."
On July 15, another woman, Anna Fermanova, 24, was arrested at JFK airport with $15,000 worth of night vision equipment and rifle scopes, which are not legally allowed to be exported. Fermanova was bound for a Russian plane. Her lawyer has said she is not a spy, but was looking to bring the equipment to sell to hunters in Russia.