SMYRNA, DELAWARE (8/1/2015) Smyrna police say nine people from Delaware were involved in a nationwide online rental theft scam that was centered in the town but also involved other people in Nigeria.
More than 35 victims have been identified with more than $150,000 in payments made, Cpl. Brandon Dunning, a police spokesman, said Friday.
The Smyrna department began investigating in November when a Florida resident reported a possible rental theft scam with a house advertised on trulia.com and payment to be made to Verna L. Nowell of Smyrna. Nowell, of the 300 block of Peach Circle, initially denied knowledge of the scam and advised her identity was stolen, Dunning said.
In January, a Texas resident reported finding their home listed for rent on trulia.com when in fact it was not, with $2,300 payment to be made to a Smyrna resident who was listed as the owner and landlord.
After linking those two incidents, Dunning said, calls from police in California, Illinois and other states reported victims who had sent money to Smyrna for what they believed to be rental properties.
Dunning said investigators found that Nowell, 63, was at the center of the scam.
“Nowell met subjects online via internet dating sites who live and reside in Lagos, Nigeria. Nowell eventually agreed to receive money from individuals throughout the country and after taking a portion of the proceeds she would then forward the money out of the United States to Nigeria via Western Union and MoneyGram,” Dunning said.
“Persons outside of the U.S. were locating and copying either legitimate ads for rental properties or copying information from other online sources and then reposting the information on craigslist and trulia.com as if they were the landlords/owner of said properties while using their American counterpart’s names,” Dunning said.
Nowell was arrested Friday for racketeering, money laundering, theft $1,500 or greater, conspiracy second degree and falsely reporting an incident to police. She was released after posting $28,000 secured bail.
Ronald D. Miles Jr., 21, of the first block of W. Commerce St. in Smyrna, was arrested Friday and charged with money laundering, theft $1,500 or greater and conspiracy second degree. Miles Jr. was being held at Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna in default of $14,000 secured bail.
Dunning said active arrest warrants are pending for the following on charges of money laundering, theft $1,500 or greater and conspiracy second degree:
- Ronald D. Miles Sr., 48, of Smyrna.
- Chase Madden, 18, of Townsend (grandson of Nowell).
- Barbara McBride, 52, of Smyrna.
- Cory Bynaker, 22, of Smyrna.
- Kimberly Draper, 37, of Clayton.
- Shirley Watson, 44, of Townsend.
In addition, Dustin C. Brennan, 21, of Fairfield Drive in Smyrna, was arrested for attempted theft by false pretense in connection with the Texas victim.
“Once an unsuspecting renter contacted the seller they were advised to wire the money to one of the eight individuals uncovered in the investigation,” Dunning said. “The money was then collected by the group up and down the state at various Western Union and MoneyGram locations in order to conceal suspicious activity.
“All parties involved were also very cautious about the amount of money sent or received at each transaction and/or total amount per day sent or received. Once the money was cashed they would take a portion of the proceeds for themselves and then send the money out of the country.
“Nowell eventually became flagged by Western Union and MoneyGram for suspicious activity at which point she then brought in several associates and other family members to assist her with cashing the money orders and then resending the money overseas,” Dunning said.