Throughout the country, people were sending money to two Houston men after finding the car of their dreams online. And when the men took off with their cash, a closely guarded federal government computer program that scans facial features helped federal agents make an arrest.
Romanian national Viorel Dinca is behind bars in the downtown Houston Federal Detention Center, charged with Bank Fraud, Wire Fraud and Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud charges. A Romanian interpreter relayed a federal magistrate’s order last week that he remain locked up without bond.
He’s accused of opening bank accounts in Houston and elsewhere so that wire transfers could be deposited from unsuspecting victims who thought they were buying cars they found listed for sale online.
One victim sent a wire transfer of $9,100, another sent $18,345 and other wire transfers much larger. Dinca is accused of setting up accounts that received one wire transfer for $42,176 and another for $64,332. One victim wired $71,332 and there were several transfers of $19,380 within just a few days.
Each time money was sent, US Postal Inspectors say the victims thought they were paying for a luxury vehicle that was featured for sale in various online auto selling websites.
US Postal Inspectors say the scammers were selling cars they didn’t own.
That means, in some cases it was merely an enticing photograph of a luxury vehicle or a muscle car. The ads likely contained glowing details of a great car or a fantastic bargain, and after some back and forth interaction with the supposed seller, the buyers dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Houston bank accounts set up by Dinca.
He was captured on bank surveillance cameras withdrawing some of the money from his various accounts and Bank of America fraud investigators provided those photos to Postal Inspectors.
The photos show Dinca standing in line at one Bank of America branch, as inspectors say he waited to pull out some of the money that had shown up in his accounts. In another photo, he is standing and conversing with a teller as he withdraws money.
Inspectors also looked at security video that recorded his voice as he was either opening accounts or withdrawing money, and since he spoke with a deep foreign accent, that gave investigators another avenue in figuring out exactly who he is.
Since Dinca is accused of using phony identifications to open the accounts, including a phony Austrian passport and driver’s license, inspectors needed another tool to figure out the suspected scammer’s true identity.
The bank security photos were submitted to the US State Department Diplomatic Security Service, where facial recognition software was used to compare those photos to pictures that are taken when visas are issued to enter the United States.
The State Department uses facial recognition as part of the biometrics now embedded into visas, so photos of foreign nationals are routinely scanned into the gigantic database when anyone enters the United States.
The Diplomatic Security Service software dipped into the visa database, where those photos are entered for all foreign nationals who have received visas to enter the country. Dinca’s photo was then matched with the bank surveillance photos, which are now included as evidence in his court file.
After coming up with a name, inspectors then tracked down a rental car that was recorded in one of the bank transactions. That rental car receipt led them to a Houston hotel, which allowed inspectors to arrest him.
Also charged in the scam is German national Ovidiu Maximenco, who was arrested at Miami’s airport during a layover. Inspectors write in court papers that Maximenco often appears in the bank security videos with Dinca. Proceedings were under way Wednesday night to bring him back to Houston to face the charges.
Also Wednesday, investigators connected with the case said they made 2 other arrests in the Houston area as part of this same online car selling scam. Details of the federal charges against them were not available on Wednesday evening.
Inspectors say Dinca and Maximenco used several Houston banks to withdraw money and use debit cards, including:
- Bank of America at 2929 Southwest Freeway
- Bank branch at 3223 South Loop West
- Bank branch at 9604 South Main Street
Before the facial recognition software unmasked his true identity, Bank of America fraud investigators only knew Dinca by the name he provided when he opened some of the bank accounts. The bogus name “Nicolaus Plaum” appears at the top of several photos that are included in Dinca’s federal court file.
Some of the online victims may see some of their money returned to them, but it could be pennies on the dollar and even that could take years. Typically, the federal government begins forfeiture proceedings in fraud cases like this, so prosecutors typically try to seize any of the money that hasn’t been spent.
The Federal Trade Commission warns online shoppers that wiring money is like handing over cash, so it’s a really bad idea if you are not sure who you’re dealing with.
Some online car selling portals include an escrow service or other protections for those buying cars through their sites. An escrow option may cost you $20 to $60, but it may be worth the protection. It allows you to place your money in escrow that is controlled by the website, an independent party, until you are positive that the transaction is legitimate and you finalize the sale.