A crew of international con artists allegedly convinced a U.S. defense contractor to send them millions of dollars worth of sensitive military gear they weren’t even supposed to know existed, according to court documents obtained by Quartz. Some of the items obtained by the fraudsters are not known to the public and are reportedly so top secret, “even a photograph [is] considered controlled.”
The “highly sensitive communications interception equipment” was valued at $3.2 million, and requires a license to ship abroad. The manufacturer is named in legal filings only as “Company B,” based in Maryland. Members of the ring posed as a Navy contracting officer named “Daniel Drunz” to acquire the equipment.
All it took for the scammers posing as “Drunz” to get the equipment from Company B was a free Yahoo email address ending in “navy-mil.us,” per a search warrant application filed in Maryland federal court by special agent August Merker of the Department of Homeland Security’s Counter-Proliferation Investigations Task Force. An authentic Navy email would end in “.mil.”
“Drunz” sent a phony purchase order in August 2016 to Company B for the restricted communications interception equipment, and provided a Chantilly, Virginia shipping address that was described as a Navy installation. Company B delivered the devices a month or two later, after which they were shipped to Los Angeles, California.
The purchase order wasn’t real. Company B never got paid, and when investigators interviewed the employees involved, they informed them that “Drunz” didn’t exist either. “Records searches for DRUNZ revealed that there has never been a U.S. Navy employee named Daniel Drunz,” reads one of the case filings.
While it might seem easy for criminals to cover their tracks online, there will almost always be one aspect of a heist that exposes the fraudsters. In this case, court papers indicate Sturmer’s renting of the office was the break investigators needed to connect the dots.
“There’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned gumshoe work,” Navigant Director Joseph Campbell told Quartz.
Campbell, who served as a section chief in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, said terrorists and transnational criminal organizations use a variety of methods to obtain export-controlled and dual-use items to either use or resell.
Using a fictitious Navy email was an important tool for the alleged “Drunz” conspirators, but the ring was well prepared in other ways, said Campbell. Finding out the names of the right officials to contact in the first place was important, and writing emails in an authentic-seeming tone perhaps even more so. Accurately mimicking Department of Defense purchase orders was also key, and Campbell said a bit of open-source research can sometimes prove sufficient to this end.
In this case, the scammers were caught. Many times, they’re not. “They’re extremely persistent and time is on their side,” Campbell said. “They’re at this 24/7.”