FINCASTLE — Botetourt County and surrounding jurisdictions are struggling to prosecute interstate money laundering cases that stem from internet scams.
Sgt. David Dillow with the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office said the county has seen an increasing number of people losing money to internet scams, but that law enforcement is only able to pursue about one-third of the cases.
In Circuit Court Tuesday, Judge Anita Filson sentenced a Miami-area woman to a five-year suspended sentence with three years of supervised probation for the theft of $12,483 from a Botetourt County resident.
Claudia L. Gonzalez, of Hialeah, Florida, was part of an email-spoofing scheme that mimicked a Realtor’s email account, Commonwealth’s Attorney John Alexander said. The fake email requested a Botetourt County resident wire $5,000 to an account in Florida to pay for a local real estate transaction.
Once the resident transferred the funds, another fake email was sent requesting an additional $7,483. The resident wired the money, but discovered too late it was a fraudulent account, Alexander said.
Dillow worked as the lead investigator on the case and tracked the account to a Regions Bank in Florida. He obtained warrants for the account information and video footage from the bank, which showed Gonzalez withdrawing the money immediately after it entered the account.
A Botetourt County grand jury indicted Gonzalez, who was arrested in Florida after police pulled her over for a traffic violation, Dillow said.
Gonzalez pleaded guilty to one count of obtaining funds under false pretenses and one count of identity theft in court in July. She paid $5,000 in restitution and is required to pay the remaining $7,483 within the three years of her probation.
The Gonzalez case demonstrates what can happen when law enforcement is able to find evidence, but that often isn’t possible in other cases with internet scams. Dillow said identifying bank accounts and finding where money was wired is typically easy. But tracking gift cards, Green Dot prepaid cards or MoneyGrams is nearly impossible.
Additionally, working across jurisdictions and gathering evidence from other states proves difficult for smaller localities.
“Often times the information that we need to prove the case is in another state and we can’t compel people to come here from another state to testify,” Alexander said. “So it becomes very cumbersome for us to prove these cases.”
Dillow said obtaining video evidence for cases across state lines, like in the Gonzalez case, only happens about half the time. Obtaining and executing search warrants in other states requires cooperation from multiple departments and has a longer timeline than local cases. Often, footage has been taped over before the warrant reaches the proper bank.
“You want to pursue it as quickly as possible, but there’s so much paperwork that it can take a long time to get there,” Dillow said. “That’s the biggest problem we have.”
In one case, a Botetourt County resident sent $75,000 to invest in a fake startup in Utah. Dillow said he tried investigating the case and called the other state’s police departments, but they were unable to locate where the money had gone.
Dillow sent the case on to federal authorities, but they didn’t have the resources to pursue it. The FBI’s cases are focused on higher sums — in the realm of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, meaning local cases can be left unsolvable.
Difficulty obtaining evidence is not a problem unique to Botetourt County. Dillow said he works with surrounding jurisdictions on related cases and sees the problem happening across the country. Botetourt County, he said, has had some success in prosecuting cases and returning the money to victims.
“We try to tell victims that these cases are very hard to prove, they’re very complicated,” Dillow said. “The main goal is to get their money back, but that doesn’t always happen.”
Dillow tells residents to never wire money to someone they don’t know. The best practice is to speak to the person face to face or somehow confirm their identity. But with new scams popping up every day, departments are trying their best to keep up.
“There are as many different kinds as you can imagine,” Alexander said. “There are a lot of smart people out there that are thinking up new ways to scam people.”