You’re poring over ads for a good, dependable, not too expensive car for your kid. You try, or eBay, or Auto Trader.

Inevitably, you’ll hit the jackpot and stumble on a deal that’s just too good to be true. Like, say, this sweet ride:

2000 HONDA Accord EX V6
LEATHER SUNROOF 200 Horse Power V6 Automatic Transmission Naples Gold Metallic Exterior Soft Plush Leather Interior In Dash CD Radio Remote Entry… Perfect CarFax History… No accidents no damage no problems…

It’s a steal at only $2960!

Yes, it’s a steal. Literally. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Thursday that it’s indicted 20 people – that includes 15 Romanians, one Bulgarian and four people from the US – for these swindling “I’m in the military and being deployed overseas and have to sell it fast” scams.

In the three unsealed indictments – here’s one, here’s the second, and here’s the third – prosecutors allege that the international gang defrauded US consumers out of millions through online auction fraud.

They also allegedly laundered the money via cryptocurrency.

The indictments come out of a multi-year, international investigation, launched in Kentucky and led by the US Secret Service.

The investigation led to a 24-count indictment, filed in July 2018, that charged 14 Romanians and one Bulgarian with RICO conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and aggravated identity theft. The most recent indictment, filed on Wednesday, charges another foreign national, plus four people from the US, with 11 counts relating to alleged involvement in the crime ring.

Out of the 15 non-US people charged, 12 have been extradited to the US and are awaiting trials, which are currently set for 18 June and 7 August, 2019.

Running on fumes

Here’s how it worked: alleged conspirators in Romania posted fake ads on popular online auction and sales websites, including Craigslist and eBay, for high-cost goods (typically vehicles) that ran on air because they were figments of the imagination.

They’d con people in the US with, among other lies, stories of how they were in the military and needed to sell their car before being deployed.

Sound familiar? These car scams have been around for years. As the FBI has reported, sometimes it’s a military imposter, sometimes the fictional vehicle is purportedly coming out of a divorce settlement, and sometimes the fraudsters tell victims that they inherited the car.

The defendants allegedly created fictitious online accounts to post the ads and chat up victims, often hiding behind stolen American identities. Then they allegedly sent pictures of the vehicles, plus “invoices” that bore the trademarks of reputable companies, to give the swindles an air of authenticity.

After their targets fell for it and sent payment, the conspirators allegedly laundered the money by converting it to cryptocurrency and transferring it to their foreign-based buddies. According to the indictment, the alleged foreign-based money launderers include Vlad-Călin Nistor, who owns Coinflux Services SRL, and Rossen Iossifov, who owns R G Coins.

The indictment charges Nistor and Iossifov with converting cryptocurrency into Romanian currency, Leu.

The indictments detail a long list of how the alleged crooks separated people from their money. Here are a few:

  • Liviu-Sorin Nedelcu, 33, of Romania allegedly created legitimate-sounding entities through which he purported to sell vehicles. For example, he used an email address, [email protected], belonging to Aol Autos, to write messages to victims with subject lines like, “America Online Autos Financial Department [Order # 099106592090].” The emails contained invoices that came off as legitimate.
  • Ionuţ Ciobanu, 28, of Romania and his co-conspirators allegedly used the email address [email protected] to communicate with victims, signing off as “Sgt. Judith Lane.” They allegedly went so far as to create a Facebook profile for Judith Lane, whom they portrayed as a member of the US Air Force. Ciobanu, acting as “Judith Lane,” also allegedly posted two Facebook ads for the sale of automobiles.
  • Marius-Dorin Cernat, 35, of Romania and his co-conspirators allegedly sent victims invoices that appeared to be from eBay Motors and provided an eBay Motors Support Department phone number and the email address of [email protected] These invoices provided instructions for payment and included reassuring language for secure transactions, such as,

Through OneVanilla Prepaid Visa services we can guarantee you 100 percent protection and insurance in this transaction. eBay Payments will secure the payment until the buyer receives, inspects, and accepts the item. Or, if it will be the case, eBay will refund the payment to the buyer.

  • Ştefan-Alexandru Păiuşi, 33, of Romania also allegedly convinced victims to send money via what looked like authentic invoices. One such, which appeared to be sent from “eBayTM Buyer Protection,” provided the victim with an email address for questions, described the seller as a “certified eBayTM third-party seller,” and explained that the buyer will be refunded if he or she refuses the merchandise.