Howell traffic violation takes investigators to international scammers
A traffic violation in Howell leads investigators through a virtual hall of mirrors, to a global lottery scam that ripped money from unwitting victims to pay online gamblers at an alleged illegal site outside the U.S.
Howell police police said that, with cooperation by the FBI, they seized $3,071 belonging to a woman in Idaho, part of some $50,000 she paid for MoneyGrams, convinced that she had won a lottery drawing in England. She's being reunited with the seized cash.
The pullover occurred May 18, 2016, on Route 9, near Estelle Lane. Patrolman David Levine spotted tinted front windows.
Levine called for K-9 Officer Nicholas Bondarew and partner Jago when the driver offered deceptive answers, faulty credentials, and appeared to be impaired by drugs. police said.
A search of the car uncovered $2,071 cash and a $1,000 MoneyGram from Costa Rica, payable to the driver.
After giving conflicting accounts of the origins of the money, the driver told police that it was won by wagering at an online site, police said. The driver was released but police kept the cash and the MoneyGram.
Levine and Detective Anthony Romano then began a probe that lasted months, tracing the MoneyGram to a batch of 10 bought in a Hayden, Idaho Wal-Mart for $9,800.
Contacting the store, the investigators acquired surveillance images of the 71-year-old victim from Coeur D'Alene, along with her car.
They reached FBI Special Agent Edward Jacobson in Coeur D'Alene, who identified the victim and her vehicle.
Interviewing the victim, Jacobson learned that she had been contacted by someone identifying himself as "Special Agent Frank Anderson of the Department of Homeland Security," who told her that she could claim her "lottery winnings" by paying taxes on the full amount beforehand.
She eventually bought about $50,000 worth of MoneyGrams, police said, and sent them to various spots, including Costa Rica. Investigators then followed the trail to the gaming site.
Howell police sought forfeiture of the $3,071 through the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, and is returning the sum to the victim. Police said that until learning of this investigaiton, she still wasn't aware that she had been robbed.
The driver whose windows precipitated the probe was not arrested or charged. Police did not identify the gambling site allegedly at the root of the scam.