LAURA CRIMALDI, Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ The U.S. Secret Service on Thursday made a public plea for victims of an international “black money” scheme to come forward, saying scammers have ripped off three people in New England for $170,000, so far, and they believe many more people have been scammed.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Thomas M. Powers, U.S. Secret Service Resident Agent in Charge in Providence.
Powers is making the push after authorities in Providence last week arrested two Liberian nationals they say attempted to scam an undercover agent. Scam victims are typically too ashamed and embarrassed to come forward, but their knowledge is valuable to law enforcement, Powers said. He cited cases in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine where victims contacted authorities, but declined to be interviewed.
“We believe there are additional victims,” Powers said. He added the scheme is mostly taking place in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and that investigators believe there are 20 scammers involved.
Investigators say con artists convince victims to pay for chemicals to wash bank note-sized paper they claim to be real currency dyed black to avoid detection by customs officials. The fraudsters claim they were forced from their country and cannot afford the materials required to cleanse their cash, Powers said.
In a case involving a Fall River, Mass,. auto body shop owner, one fraudster claimed he was the driver for the president of Liberia, according to an affidavit signed by Secret Service Agent Jon H. Ringel.
In other cases, the scammers tell victims they need real currency to effect the reaction that removes the dye. In the case involving the auto body shop owner, they promised to turn his $100,000 into $300,000, the affidavit said.
Powers said the con artists visit nightclubs and other places, where they look for potential victims among people wearing expensive jewelry or driving luxury cars. The auto body shop owner was first approached by a con artist at a McDonald’s, where he was asked about his Lamborghini, the affidavit said.
The fraudsters demonstrate the cleansing process with a few genuine currency bills that are used to trap victims, Powers said. An agent who witnessed the cleansing demonstration said the process is convincing, he added.
Victims withdraw money and provide it to the fraudsters who go to hotel rooms to wash the cash, which is dyed with black shoe polish, Powers said.
The washing solution is a mixture of chlorine, ammonia and laundry detergent that is mixed in a bathroom tub and gives off a powerful smell that usually overcomes victims to the point that they leave the fraudsters alone with the money, which is later locked in a safe, Powers said.
After the money is washed, the scammers and victims leave the hotel for a meal. Powers said they leave the victims with the hotel room and safe keys.
What they find in the locked safe, is usually black construction paper.
`The rate of return is zero,” Powers said.
Investigators also believe the con artists are working as a team, with people playing different roles, Powers said. For example, one person will find possible targets, while another will close the deal.
The con artists are also brazen. Powers said in one case a victim was contacted shortly after being scammed by a person who claimed he heard that the washing process didn’t work on his money. That person told the victim he could help him for $25,000 more, Powers said.
Authorities do not know how the scammers are spending their ill-gotten gains or where their orders are coming from. They said the scam is cyclical and now is spreading out over New England.
Powers said most of the schemes are non-violent and there’s no evidence it’s tied to terrorism.
The two men arrested by authorities are Anthony Chadheen, 31, of Providence, and Alvin Pennue, 33, of Indianapolis. They are charged with passing a fictitious obligation of the United States. No pleas have been entered.
Chadheen is free on $5,000 bail. Pennue has been ordered held awaiting trial.
If convicted, they face up to 25 years in prison.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)