A Romanian man accused of orchestrating a large-scale cyber fraud ring that carried out schemes to steal more than $4 million made his first appearance in a U.S. court on Tuesday, a decade after he was first charged.
Romeo Vasile Chita, 38, led an operation that defrauded people by obtaining their personal information from their computers using malware, as well as through bogus online sales, according to federal prosecutors. Romanian authorities also prosecuted Chita in the scheme, and the case has a Cleveland-area connection because two men who participated in the operation were arrested in Westlake in 2008.
In addition to Romania, the operation worked out of the U.S., Canada, Croatia, Latvia, Hungary, Bosnia, China, Jordan, Malaysia and elsewhere, according to federal prosecutors.
Chita is one of nine charged in a U.S. grand jury indictment in 2010, though a warrant for his arrest here was first obtained in July 2008.
He was arrested in Romania on Sept. 10 and extradited to the U.S. last week. He arrived in the U.S. on Friday and was held in the Cuyahoga County Jail until Tuesday, when he was arraigned in Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent’s courtroom in Cleveland.
Chita, who also goes by “Rich,” pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, among others. Speaking in semi-broken English, he protested to the judge that he already faced the same charges in Romania and did prison time.
“It’s not different. It’s the same. The same person, the same victim, everything,” Chita said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Duncan Brown said after the hearing that some of the facts of the case are different, and that there are victims in the United States that deserve justice.
“The U.S. victims deserve protection by the U.S. judicial system,” Brown said.
Nugent told Chita that he would try to get the case done quickly. He ordered Chita held in custody pending trial, though federal public defender Darin Thompson said he and his client are going to look for a home in the hopes of asking the judge to release Chita on bond.
Federal authorities say Chita, who owned an internet service provider called NetOne, worked with others and started the large-scale cyber fraud in 2007.
One of Chita and the group’s methods was to send “phishing” emails to its targets. The emails included links to malware programs that were installed on a victim’s computer, including one that allowed the group to track a person’s keystrokes and capture sensitive information, including bank account information, officials say.
The emails said they were from the Better Business Bureau, the IRS, U.S. Tax Court, the National Payroll Records Center, and other entities, according to the FBI.
The group stole money from people’s bank accounts and transferred it to other U.S.-based accounts. They withdrew and laundered the money, according to officials.
They also made money by placing ads for cars and other expensive items on eBay, Craigslist, Autotrader.com and other websites. Victims wired group members thousands of dollars to buy items, only to never receive them, prosecutors say.
The case broke open in the U.S. in January 2008, after Westlake police arrested two Romanian men following a traffic stop. The men had $63,000 in cash, eight cellphones, two computers, a color printer, fraudulent documents and receipts from MoneyGram and Western Union, according to an FBI affidavit written in July 2008 by FBI special agent Stacy Lough.
The men, identified in the affidavit as “M.V.” and “S.S.,” confessed to their roles in the operation and said their job was to travel to several states to receive and send wire transfers.
The affidavit says Romanian cybercrime groups were notorious in 2008 for several schemes, and that they stole hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. citizens within a few years.
Of the nine charged in Chita’s indictment, three are in custody in the U.S. Co-defendants Daniel Mihai Radu and Manuel Tudor were extradited to the U.S., pleaded not guilty in arraignments in March and are awaiting trial.
The others are fugitives, officials say.
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