Man faces trial in Net fraud scheme

Area resident accused of selling stolen goods on eBay auction site

Ann Arundel County

May 20, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Carlos Fernando Lopez had a good reputation on eBay for coming through when selling computers, hand-held organizers and other electronics.

But police say they weren't his to sell.

The Anne Arundel County man is awaiting trial in a case that state police are calling the largest online fraud scheme that the agency has investigated.

"It's a phenomenal amount of stuff," said Sgt. Robert Smolek, investigating supervisor of the state police computer crimes unit.

Lopez, 30, is accused of stealing thousands of dollars in goods from FedEx Corp., selling them on the Internet's largest auction site, then shipping them to unsuspecting buyers - by FedEx.

In an eight-count criminal information filed in March, Lopez, who worked for pawnshops in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is charged with participating in a felony theft scheme from January 2000 to September last year and with seven counts of theft.

A spokesman for eBay said it is rare for stolen property to be sold through the Web site. But others acknowledge that it is difficult to determine how much of the product is hot. The federal Internet Fraud Complaint Center says it has no idea.

Smolek said that selling untraceable stolen merchandise by Internet auction is "almost a perfect fraud."

"It's a way to move product, and stolen items are making their way on this market," he said.

State police said the investigation leading to the charges against Lopez began in the fall, after nearly $350,000 in computers, laptops, cameras, DVD players, games, jewelry and other merchandise vanished from FedEx facilities in Crofton and Beltsville.

Delores Thompson, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer specializing in Internet fraud, said the sale of stolen goods through Internet auctions can be hard to discover - unless the items can be traced through serial numbers. That, according to court records, is what police, FedEx's internal security and the transport company's customers did in the Lopez case.

Laptop sale

Lopez sold a WinBook laptop on eBay last May for $1,075 to a California woman, according to the court papers. It was the first time the woman, Sharon Cooney, bought on eBay. Online, she had read good things about Lopez, who used three eBay identification names to post more than 220 items, according to police and the eBay site.

Cooney sent Lopez a certified check and was delighted with the laptop she had snared for a few hundred dollars below list price. But the thrill vanished when she sought to upgrade the computer's memory. She shipped it through FedEx to WinBook. When it was not returned, she called WinBook and learned the company was keeping it because it had been reported stolen after failing to reach a customer in Silver Spring. "I'm out the money, and I'm out the computer," she said.

Lopez's attorney said his client is a legitimate businessman. "Carlos buys and sells things that he purchases from others, such as pawnshops and buyers," said Richard R. Trunnell. "Given that my client put his name on eBay, why would he do that if he stole the items?"

Trunnell said Lopez has been granting refunds to some who bought items from him at auction.

FedEx has had to reimburse its customers, many of them major computer companies, according to court papers. A FedEx spokeswoman declined to discuss the case but noted that the company typically "accommodates" customers for the value that the senders place on missing items, which might not be the true value of the goods.

Police, prosecutors and FedEx are still sorting out how much of the merchandise that Lopez is suspected of auctioning online came from the shipping company, according to Clifford C. Stoddard Jr., an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County who specializes in white-collar crime and is prosecuting the Lopez case.

Not everything believed to have been stolen from the Crofton and Beltsville FedEx sites has been auctioned on eBay. At least one item auctioned by Lopez was reported taken in a burglary, according to court documents.

Lopez, who was released on his recognizance after being arrested last fall, is scheduled to go to trial next month in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

Another arrest pending

As the investigation into the case continues, police say that another arrest is pending. Charging documents in Lopez's case say an unidentified FedEx employee is suspected. But police said they would not discuss that and would not say whether someone other than Lopez is a larger target in the probe.

It is not unheard of for stolen items to be sold on eBay. Last year, two Marshall Field's window dressers in Chicago were accused of stealing $2 million in store goods and selling the high-end items on eBay.

Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman, said that the rate of fraudulent transactions at the site was a hundredth of 1 percent for the first quarter of this year - and nearly all of those cases involved merchandise that was misrepresented or never delivered.

Pursglove said it's difficult to tell whether an item up for bid is stolen. But because the company records transactions and cooperates with police, fencing stolen goods on eBay is "a pretty dumb idea," he said.

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