05 Jun 2020
OCCRP — A light snow was falling in Craiova, southern Romania, when Sorin Velcu called his mother in December 2018 to ask for 20,000 euros he had given her for safekeeping. But the funds were frozen — buried in the ice-cold earth in her backyard.
“Somebody has to dig it out,” Paula Velcu told her son, according to records of the conversation submitted to the court by Romanian prosecutors, who allege that Sorin Velcu belongs to a transnational organized crime group.
The cash was only a fraction of the money the gang had stashed around the world. Led by Florian Tudor, also known as “The Shark,” the organization specialized in stealing banking information from rigged ATMs and withdrawing cash from the accounts of victims.
While Tudor and other key members hailed from Craiova, they ran their scheme in countries including Indonesia, Mexico, and the Caribbean island nations of Barbados and Grenada. The Shark based his operation in the Mayan Riviera region of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, where he preyed on the millions of tourists who visit each year.
The scam brought in an estimated US$240 million a year from early 2014 until spring 2019 — totaling around $1.2 billion, according to one former gang member.
It was a complicated operation. Tudor’s Riviera Maya gang loaded victims’ stolen account details onto cloned bank cards, which they used to withdraw small amounts at a time in various locations around the world. The bundles of cash had to be gathered together, and then laundered to create the impression that the profits were from legitimate businesses.
Journalists traced the trail of this cash, which was sometimes carried personally from place to place or transferred using companies like Western Union. Some of the money was invested in real estate.
To uncover the money laundering scheme, journalists searched property records on four continents, interviewed dozens of sources, and delved into around 15,000 pages of law enforcement documents from Mexico, Romania, Indonesia, and the United States.
Velcu is now awaiting trial in Romania, where authorities charged him in January for belonging to an organized crime group, extortion, and possession of a firearm. Five other gang members were also charged. The Shark remains free in Mexico, where he is under investigation on unknown charges.
Worldwide Web of Deception
Velcu had been jailed at least once before, for seven months in Indonesia, where he was sentenced along with three fellow gang members. They were found with cards cloned from victims from 10 countries in Europe and North America.
Velcu and his crew — including his partner, Alisa Sardaru — were caught in March 2019 on the Indonesian island of Bali during one of their money-collecting trips. They would travel the world, visiting different ATMs to withdraw from their victims’ accounts. To avoid detection, they took out only small amounts at a time.
From far-flung countries, Velcu and his crew would find people to make Western Union transfers to Romania. The money would be sent to others back in Romania including locals in Craiova recruited by gang members and The Shark’s wife, Rebeca Tudor. Romanian prosecutors found numerous individuals from Craiova, including construction workers, a student, and even a priest, who picked up amounts of $3,000 or less, according to their statements.
Eduard Costel Raicea, 28, told prosecutors he was working on a house being built by Rebeca when she approached him and around 10 of his co-workers and requested a favor.
“She asked us to receive some money from Mexico via Western Union from her husband, as the amount was a larger sum of money that she could not withdraw, she needed the money to finish building the house,” he told prosecutors.
Rebeca gave them each a piece of paper with a Money Transfer Control Number and they picked up amounts of between 2,800 and 3,000 euros, he said. For their trouble, they each received 100 Romanian lei (about 20 euros).
By transferring relatively small amounts of cash, and using different people to do so, the gang could avoid scrutiny for money laundering. Nonetheless, the Financial Intelligence Unit of Romania picked up the suspicious transactions and notified the police in 2016.
The gang also hid cash in packages sent via DHL, or simply carried the money on international flights hidden in their clothes, according to Romanian police.
In February 2019, Maria Dumitru, originally from Romania, was stopped at the airport in Cancún on her way from Panama, carrying 80,000 Barbados dollars (about $40,000). She told Mexician law enforcement that she made between $15 and $26 a day cleaning houses on the street where the Riviera Maya gang had real estate. She said she had received the money from a rich person from the “Arab country of Israel,” whom she had met online.
She told authorities she was hiding the money because her husband was the jealous type and did not know about her online infidelity.
In fact, her husband was Gheorghe Dumitru, who Mexican police say is a close associate of Tudor’s and has been seen entering and leaving his house. Dumitru is also Sorin Velcu’s brother.
At the beginning of February, their cousin, Antonio-Marian Dumitru, and another gang member had been detained in Barbados, just days before Maria was stopped at Cancún’s airport.
Antonio-Marian and his associate were caught skimming ATMs in Barbados. A magistrate fined them 20,000 Barbados dollars and ordered them deported. The Barbadian lawyers hired to represent Antonio-Marian received money from Craiova via Western Union in several installments sent by different people, including from his mother.
In July last year, the two men were on the wanted list of the Royal Barbados Police Force, according to the news website Loop Barbados.
Full Laundry Cycle
By conducting much of their business in cash, the gang made it difficult for investigators to follow the money trail. However, there are records of a few large transfers through banks.
In 2016, Rebeca Tudor received 109,755 euros in two installments from her husband, who at the time was running his operation in Mexico. The same year and the next, she received another 299,419 euros, this time from Adrian Enachescu, The Shark’s stepbrother and a shareholder in Top Life Servicios, the company the gang set up to install rigged ATMs in Mexico.
Then in January 2019, Rebeca wired $127,000 to Enachescu in Mexico. This time, the transfer triggered an alarm. A bank employee called her the next day. She explained that it was the repayment of a loan
In fact, the bank had picked up on how the gang launders money through real estate loans.
Rebeca received money from the gang via bank transfers and in cash, then loaned it to a company she set up in 2016, Seven Residence SRL. Seven Residence would use the money to construct apartments. Rebeca would then sell the apartments through her company and send money back to the gang, completing a full money laundering cycle.
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