The Costa Mesa Police Department played a key role in taking down a multimillion dollar cyber fraud scheme headed by an international fugitive who, after being taken into custody in his native Romania in April 2010, “released himself” from lockup. Nicolae Popescu remains at large with six other Romanian nationals tied to the fraud ring that stole at least $3 million through online sales of nonexistent cars and other high-priced goods.
According to the Romanian media, Popescu was among 34 countrymen held for cyber crimes in 2010. The government had already started building its case against other defendants when Popescu was arrested on the final day the charging documents against ring members were set to expire.
There is apparently a device in Romanian law that allows prosecutors to seek an additional 29 days to continue an investigation of someone in custody. But no one filed for such an extension by the hour the deadline was reached on the charging documents. Popescu asked to be released and, according to the media report, officials had to comply because that's the law. He is said to have walked out the door of the jail before those who brought the case against the ring had been informed.
A statement from the FBI that is based on an indictment unsealed in federal court in New York last week reveals that the ring Popescu allegedly led:
- Tried to saturate the Internet marketplace, through websites including eBay, Cars.com, AutoTrader.com and CycleTrader.com, with detailed advertisements for cars, motorcycles, boats, and other high-value items generally priced in the $10,000 to $45,000 range–and which did not exist.
- Successfully completed transactions with victims worldwide through fake websites, counterfeit certificates of title, false identities and counterfeit payment service information.
- In many cases, fraudulently obtained funds that were funneled into American bank accounts they set up.
- Sent “buyers” of the cars and other items being sold phony invoices claiming to be from Amazon, PayPal or other online payment services, with instructions to transfer the money to these American bank accounts.
- Reaped more than $3 million.
Popescu's role as ringleader involved, among other things, coordinating all the players around the world, providing them phony passports so they could move from country to country freely, supervising the placement of fake ads and communications with “buyers” and overseeing the fund transfers.
What the feds call “a coordinated international takedown” began with a fraud investigation into Romanian crime figures by Costa Mesa Police Detective Eugene Kim during late 2007. He was assisted by members of the department's Special Investigations Unit, including officers Larry Fettis, Matt Selinske and Daniel Miles, who collaborated with federal authorities to develop the initial case. Officers George Maridekis, George Escenueles, Bang Le, Mario Garcia, Kevin Westman, Tine Natividad and Aaron Parsons also assisted.
The crime trail went from Costa Mesa and other parts of Southern California to other western states, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, according to the feds, who note six arrests have been made.
Federal charging documents in this country indicate Popescu was aware of the risk of prosecution in the United States and predicted on July 28, 2011, that “criminals will not be extradited from Romania to U.S.A. . . . [l]t will never happen.”
The feds and Interpol have posted posters showing Popescu and his associates who remain at large.
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OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.