SMYRNA — The Smyrna Police Department announced Friday it has concluded a nearly nine-month investigation into a national rental theft scam centered in Smyrna that has resulted in charges against eight people.
Smyrna police arrested Verna Nowell of Smyrna Friday and charged her with racketeering, money laundering, theft of $1,500 or greater, second-degree conspiracy and falsely reporting an incident to police.
The investigation began in November 2014 after a resident in Florida reported to Smyrna Police about a possible rental theft scam involving Ms. Nowell, according to public information officer Cpl. Brandon L. Dunning of the Smyrna Special Investigations Unit.
The Floridian told officers about an advertisement for a rental house on the website trulia.com. The victim responded, and after talking to a person who identified herself as Verna Nowell agreed to send a check to Smyrna, according to police.
Detectives questioned Ms. Nowell, who originally denied any knowledge of the scam and said her identity had been stolen. Police continued with the investigation.
In January, Smyrna Police said it was contacted by a victim in Texas reporting his own home was found online at trulia.com for rent, when in fact it was not.
The Texan was able to contact the individual posting the home for rent who requested that $2,300 be sent to the owner/landlord, another Smyrna resident. Once the money was received, it was agreed that the rental agreement and keys would be mailed to him.
The victim in Texas provided the necessary information to detectives which led to the arrest of Dustin C. Brennan, 21, of Fairfield Drive, for attempted theft by false pretense.
With this new information, detectives were able to link both incidents and began an in-depth investigation into the online rental theft scam.
During January, detectives of the Smyrna Police Department received phone calls from police agencies as far away as California and Illinois reporting victims in those states who had sent money to Smyrna for what they believed to be rental properties.
More than 35 victims have been identified from around the country and more than $150,230 has changed hands, according to Cpl. Dunning.
Police determined that the center of the rental theft scam allegedly revolved around Ms. Nowell, 63, of the 300 block of Peach Circle. Along with Ms. Nowell, detectives identified several other suspects,
They include Ronald O. Miles of Smyrna; Chase Madden of Townsend, who is Ms. Nowell’s grandson; Barbara McBride of Smyrna; Cory Bynaker of Smyrna; Kimberly Draper of Clayton; Shirley Watson of Townsend and Ronald D. Miles of Smyrna.
According to police, detectives learned that Ms. Nowell met subjects online via Internet dating sites who live in Lagos, Nigeria. Ms. Nowell allegedly agreed to receive money from individuals throughout the country and after taking a portion of the proceeds, she would then forward the money to Nigeria via Western Union and MoneyGram.
Police said the money was part of an elaborate online rental theft scam. Allegedly people outside the United States located either legitimate ads for rental properties or copied information from other online sources and then reposted the information on craigslist and trulia.com as if they were the landlords/owner of the properties while using their American counterpart’s names. Once an unsuspecting renter contacted the seller they were advised to wire the money to one of the eight individuals uncovered in the investigation.
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. Police said the suspects were also 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 remaining money out of the country.
Police said Ms. Nowell eventually became flagged by Western Union and MoneyGram for suspicious activity. According to police that’s when she recruited several associates and other family members to assist her with cashing the money orders and then resending the money overseas.
Ms. Nowell was arraigned in the Justice of the Peace Court 2 via video phone and released after posting $28,000 secured bail.
Also on Friday, officers arrested Ronald D. Miles Jr., 21, of the unit block of West Commerce St. Smyrna, for money laundering, theft of $1,500 or greater and second-degree conspiracy. He was arraigned in the Justice of the Peace Court 2 via video phone and committed to James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna in default of $14,000 secured bail.
Smyrna Police Department said it has active arrest warrants pending for:
• Ronald D. Miles Sr., 48, of Smyrna.
• Chase Madden, 18, of Townsend.
• Barbara McBride, 52, of Smyrna.
• Cory Bynaker, 22, of Smyrna.
• Kimberly Draper, 37, of Clayton.
• Shirley Watson, 44, of Townsend.
Police said charges for all are for money laundering, theft $1,500 or greater and second-degree conspiracy.
For information on rental scams, Trulia recommends visiting its Rental Listings Scams information page.