A $2m (about Shs5.54b) international counterfeiting operation began to unravel with the purchase of a $3.85 (about Shs10,679)up of coffee in Oakland a year ago.
Federal authorities say Mr Ryan Andrew Gustafson, 27, set up an operation in Uganda that involved an elaborate reshipping process, an Internet network of contacts, rubber hand molds and bills hidden in fliers about a children’s charity.
But he made two mistakes: He used a Pittsburgh contact already known to local authorities and he left a fingerprint on a document despite regularly using the molds to avoid detection.
Federal officials released details here Thursday that led to counterfeiting and other charges against Mr Gustafson, an American living in Kampala, Uganda.
Mr Gustafson, who previously lived in Texas and Colorado, was arrested in Uganda December 11 on similar charges there and it’s not clear when or if he will be extradited to face charges here.
US Attorney David Hickton and Eric P. Zahren, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office of the Secret Service, said the scheme to produce bogus $20, $50 and $100 bills has been going on in Africa and Europe since 2007.
The investigation used normal investigative techniques such as confidential informants as well as more complex facial recognition technology and sending a prosecutor to Uganda to build a case against Mr Gustafson.
The investigation began last year when a man used a fake $100 bill to buy coffee at Peet’s Coffee in Oakland on December 26. It was detected by a bank employee when the shop deposited its receipts at the end of the day.
Identifying the first culprit
The secret service used video surveillance to identify the man who used the bill. The man, who became a confidential informant, was identified by the initials J.G. in a 15-page affidavit prepared by Special Agent Keith E. Heckman of the Secret Service.
Mr Hickton and Mr Zahren refused to identify the informant, but the dates of that and another purchase match counterfeiting charges filed in March against Joseph Graziano.
Mr Graziano is a Downtown man accused of passing fake bills made in Uganda as he was awaiting trial on charges he stole $2.4 million while he was a trust employee of BNY Mellon. Mr Graziano’s attorney, Martin Deitz, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Investigators said they knew J.G. used a postal box at a UPS Store on the South Side and on February 19 tracked three packages delivered there from a firm known as Beyond Computers in Kampala.
Those packages led to Mr Gustafson in two ways: the person who mailed the packages in Uganda became a confidential informant and identified him and investigators lifted his fingerprint from a document in the package received by J.G.
Mr Hickton and Mr Zahren said Mr Gustafson used a series of people in the US and elsewhere to ship packages containing hidden money several times in an effort to make it difficult to trace them back to him.
Mr Gustafson, who used aliases Jack Farrel and Willy Clock, found shippers on one of two password-only websites he created for those who wanted to participate in counterfeiting.
On December 18, 2013, the affidavit said, J.G. sent Mr Gustafson $1,500 (about Shs4.1m) through a middle man to buy $4,000 (about Shs11m) worth of fake money.
The affidavit said the fake money usually was hidden inside fliers used to promote a “Save the Children” charity. When the US contacts received the packages, they had instructions to put the fliers in hot water to loosen the glue seals, then use a heat press and hairspray so the bills would look more realistic and pass the use of special pens to determine authentic bills.
In all, authorities said the ring distributed about $2m (Shs5.54b) worldwide since 2007, about $270,000 (about Shs749m) in the US using contacts in Pittsburgh, Florida, Minnesota, Texas and Washington.
In the Pittsburgh area, about $30,000 (about Shs832m) in fake money was found in purchases made in Oakland, Carnegie and McCandless or intercepted in packages sent to the informant.
Mr Hickton said the bills are “good quality” counterfeits and the amount spread would have been higher if officials hadn’t found the bogus bill in Oakland and pursued it immediately.
Mr Zahren said US officials had been aware of the bills being circulated in Europe and Africa for several years.
Last week’s raid on Mr Gustafson’s headquarters stemmed from a November 17 posting on one of his websites that he had just shipped $250,000 (about Shs749m) in fake money to the US. On December 11, Ugandan and US authorities used an informant to buy $10,000 (Shs27.7m) in fake money from “Jack Farrel” for about $2,000 (about Shs554.7m).
The exchange was handled by Christopher Kojo, identified as Mr Gustafson’s houseboy, and authorities followed him to the headquarters. Ugandan detectives searched the home and found fake US dollars worth more than $180,000 (Shs499m), plus fake Euros, Indian Rupees, Ugandan Shillings, Congo Francs and Ghana Cedis.
They also found printers, cell phones, thumb drives, routers, paper cutters and ink believed to be used in making fake bills.
Mr Hickton said authorities believe “there is more” illegal activity involved in the counterfeiting ring and the investigation continues.
This article was first published in the Pittsburgh Post – Gazette
SOURCE: Daily Monitor