Federal authorities have charged four U.S. citizens and more than a dozen foreign nationals for swindling unsuspecting Americans out of millions of dollars through websites such as eBay and Craigslist, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
The massive fraud scheme was allegedly based in Romania, where agents from the U.S. Secret Service have been helping authorities locate and arrest those charged. In all, 16 foreign nationals have been charged in the case, and 12 of them have already been arrested and extradited to the United States, according to the Justice Department and Secret Service.
According to charging documents, the alleged fraudsters posted false advertisements for vehicles and other "high-cost goods" on popular websites. However, the items being advertised didn't actually exist, authorities said.
To execute the scheme, some of those charged would use compelling but fabricated stories to persuade victims to send them money overseas – with one of the alleged fraudsters at one point claiming to be a member of the U.S. military who was being deployed overseas and needed to sell his car quickly, charging documents say. The scheme also used stolen identities of Americans to communicate with victims, and it used forged documents bearing markings from reputable companies to appear legitimate, authorities allege.
Much of the money taken from American victims was ultimately laundered through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and one of the foreigners charged is Vlad Nistor, the CEO of a Romanian Bitcoin company called CoinFlux.
The entire investigation emanated from a small U.S. Secret Service field office in Lexington, Kentucky, with investigators following leads around the world.
“This is a shared win for law enforcement across the globe," and law enforcement agencies overseas "played a vital role," Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles said in a statement.
The Secret Service is urging potential victims to contact them.
Thought the Secret Service is widely known for protecting the President, it has traditionally investigated financial crimes too.
Hackers from Romania have repeatedly been linked to some of the U.S. government's biggest cyber-crime cases.
Several years ago, a Romanian hacker known as "Guccifer" was extradited to the United States and pleaded guilty to hacking the personal and social media accounts of nearly 100 Americans, including family members of two former U.S. presidents and a former presidential adviser. He was also suspected of targeting a slew of Hollywood celebrities.
He was sentenced to more than four years in prison.