US and international law enforcement authorities have dismantled a group operating mostly out of Romania that over the past five years allegedly stole millions of dollars from American citizens using false advertisements for goods online.
Twenty people, including 15 Romanians and 1 Bulgarian national, have been indicted for their roles in the operation. Twelve of the foreign nationals have been extradited to the US and are set to face trial later this year. The arrests stem from a 24-count indictment that a federal grand jury in Kentucky returned in July 2018.
This is the second win against online crime in recent weeks for US law enforcement and their counterparts in other countries. In January, the government announced it had taken down xDedic, one of the Internet's largest sites for stolen goods.
The latest indictments allege that the Romanian group — identified in charging documents as the Alexandria Online Auction Fraud Network — engaged in numerous activities designed to defraud Internet users in the US and elsewhere by posing to sell goods that didn't exist.
The most common scam was to place fake advertisements for automobiles and other items on online auction sites and multiple business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer sites, including eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon.
Often, the group used stolen identity information belonging to US residents to create online accounts for posting these advertisements and establishing email addresses, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said in a statement.
Emails and invoices they sent to victims would contain the trademarks of reputable operations, like AOL Motors and EBay Motors, to trick victims into believing they were engaged in a legitimate transaction. The invoices would include phone numbers and email addresses for questions and contain language that guaranteed refunds and indicating the seller was a "verified" or "certified" seller on the particular platform.
The money that victims sent was converted to bitcoins and deposited in overseas accounts.
Members of the Alexandria Online Auction Fraud Network often assumed the personas of individuals working with the US armed forces to try and add credibility to their ads. One of the gang members, for instance — identified in a DOJ press release Thursday as Ionuţ Ciobanu, 28, of Romania — allegedly communicated with victims about potential vehicle sales, using the persona of "Sgt. Judith Lane," a supposed member of the US Air Force. Ciobanu even created a Facebook profile for Judith Lane and posted at least two Facebook advertisements listing vehicles for sale. Another gang member pretended to be a "Sgt. Logan Burdick" when attempting to sell nonexistent goods.
"These members would convince American victims to send money for the advertised goods by crafting persuasive narratives, for example, by impersonating a military member who needed to sell the advertised item before deployment," the DOJ said.
The 24-count indictment unsealed this week in US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky charges members of the Romanian group with racketeering and criminal conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft. Some of the charges carry up to 20-year sentences in federal prison. The aggravated ID theft charges carry a mandatory two-year sentence that will be tacked on to the end of any other prison term the individual might receive.
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