The Indian River Shores Public Safety Department went all the way to New York to arrest a 29-year-old man accused of defrauding elderly people in at least three states – including a 76-year-old John’s Island woman – via a utility bill telephone scam targeting people with second homes.
The John’s Island resident filed a report with the Shores Public Safety Department after falling victim to a man who called her on Jan. 26 demanding immediate payment of a utility bill for her northern home utilizing an online money transfer system called Zelle.
The man on the phone identified himself as a representative from the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSE&G), a New Jersey utility, and said the utilities at her New Jersey home would be disconnected if she did not pay $486.21 without delay, according to court records. He gave her a phone number that corresponded to a Zelle account through which to make an electronic payment.
“She did as instructed and believed all was well. Moments later the same individual called back, stating that her transfer did not process, and asked that she re-send the funds. She did as instructed and re-sent another $486.21 to the same number,” court records show.
Realizing she may have been the victim of a scam, the woman called Chase bank to try to stop the transactions, but was told that the payments had processed and would not be reversed.
In most cases, that money would have been lost forever and no one would have been brought to justice, because court records show it took an extraordinary amount of legwork by Shores detectives to track down the person on the other end of the phone call.
First, the Shores officers acquired the victim’s bank records and found out the bank account where the woman’s money went. Then they obtained the name and address of the owner of that account, Welinton Manuel Cedano, through search warrants.
Once they had the identity of the accountholder, they found a newspaper article detailing the investigation of a similar crime in which Cedano was accused of stealing $2,570 from a New Jersey woman under the guise of utility payments to PSE&G. In addition, they found an open warrant for the same type of scam in Rhode Island.
By comparing notes with the detectives who worked those out-of-state cases, the Shores officers found out Cedano had used the same means of transferring money, the Zelle website, and the same cover story. They also discovered he had used the same phone number given to the John’s Island victim, and the same Chase bank account to receive the stolen funds.
They subpoenaed the bank records and found that Cedano had transferred money out to his sister, and to another woman. The sister confirmed that funds transferred to her were used to pay Cedano’s rent.
Officers called the phone number and spoke with Cedano, who according to police reports gave them a story about some guy named Alex in the Dominican Republic who had access to his account. But police say Cedano’s version of events did not match up with the bank records.
Video footage from the ATM machine Cedano used also showed him repeatedly getting cash out after his victims transferred money in.
All this was enough to get an arrest warrant signed by Judge Robyn Stone on two initial charges of third-degree felony grand theft of more than $750.00 and third-degree felony communications fraud of $300 or more.
Detective Sergeant Kyle Smith and Detective Rodney Grass began planning a trip to New York to find Cedano. They flew up on Nov. 1 to meet with the other law enforcement agencies to execute the pre-arranged arrest.
With the help of a U.S. Marshal’s task force, the New York Police Department and bank records, officers tracked Cedando down at his home at 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 2 in the Glendale neighborhood of Queens.
Cedano had been living in the United States on a Green Card issued on Jan. 1 of this year, and records show he opened the Chase bank account in January.
More than $40,000 flowed into the account just in the month of January, $21,136.50 of which was withdrawn through ATMs, and another $21,734.17 taken out through electronic transfers, leaving the account overdrawn by more than $2,000.
Cedano was arrested and taken to Riker’s Island where he was held overnight. At his first appearance, he waived extradition and agreed to be transported to Indian River County to face charges for the theft of $972.42 from the John’s Island woman. Cedano was booked into the Indian River County Jail on Nov. 3, with a $30,000 bond, plus a hold for the Rhode Island warrant.
Shores Public Safety Director Chief Rich Rosell said the victim was very grateful when Det. Grass informed her that the alleged perpetrator had been caught and was in jail. “This was a first for the agency and I am very proud of the determination they exhibited in bringing this suspect to justice,” Rosell said.
On Monday, Cedano hired criminal defense attorney Kortney Daly of the Smith and Eulo law firm with several offices throughout Central Florida. Daly filed paperwork with the court saying that Cedano has pleaded not guilty and waived arraignment. His next court date is pending.