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Crime Scenes: Feds bust alleged car rental scheme

The website depicts a grocery cart full of vehicles and offers great news in a bad economy: "No credit! Bad credit! Rent a car, truck or SUV."

Rent for as little as $15.95 a day, the website says. Drive up to 3,000 miles a month for free, insurance included. Receive a debit card for gas.

But what was billed as an opportunity for those with little money was labeled a fraud by police. Authorities believe more than 1,500 people across Maryland were lured into a complex rental-car scheme that raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Law enforcement officials say those behind the scheme charged people as much as $5,000 on top of monthly payments of up to $500 to participate. They then accompanied clients to car rental agencies and persuaded them to sign what victims believed were long-term leases with options to buy.

Police said the victims actually were renting the cars for just a few days. When the contracts ran out, the rental agencies went after the unwitting clients to get the cars back and collect late fees. By that time, police said, the organizers had stopped returning calls, and the renter was left responsible.

The Maryland U.S. attorney's office announced wire fraud indictments this week against Lamondes Williams, 51, of Baltimore, and Erica Brown, 28, of Laurel. Williams has been ordered detained; Brown was released pending trial.

The criminal charges describe the accounts of three unnamed victims, but law enforcement officials said they believe there are many more, and are urging them to come forward.

"It's a devastating scheme," said U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Daniel Bongino, one of the lead investigators in the case. He said one victim lost his life savings to rent a 2010 Ford Focus.

Court documents show that Williams was convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to commit theft and fraud in a nearly identical scheme involving rental apartments in Prince George's County. He was sentenced to five years in state prison.

Last year, the Maryland securities commissioner ordered several of Williams' businesses to stop operating, saying they were nothing more than a "pyramid program" offering customers "the promise of future commissions from future recruitments and reduced-cost auto and apartment leases in exchange for the payment of advanced fees."

According to court documents, Williams lives in the luxury Eden Apartments, located on the waterfront between Harbor East and Fells Point. The building advertises a rooftop pool, a Shangri-La Garden and a Paradise Lounge. Court documents also state that four rent checks had been returned for insufficient funds and that the apartment had been leased in the name of "2K Tek Business Solutions," with the suspect's brother listed as the primary resident.

Williams does not have an attorney listed in court records. His lawyer from his previous conviction in Prince George's County did not return calls. Williams told The Washington Post in 2005 that he was not guilty of the charges related to the apartment scheme and called the trial at which he was convicted unfair. In that interview, he attributed the charges to civil disputes with clients rather than criminal misconduct.

Authorities have arrested Williams three times this year while investigating the fraud case. On Feb. 24, police saw him outside a restaurant in College Park and arrested him on a charge of failing to appear for a probation hearing related to his 2005 conviction.

During that arrest, court documents say, police searched his rented black Chevy Tahoe and seized paperwork from Western Union, a plastic file containing folders sorted by name, four cellphones and a laptop computer. Williams posted bail and was released.

About a week later, on March 4, police arrested Williams again, this time at his Baltimore apartment complex. He had been wanted on an arrest warrant charging him with failing to return a rental car in Charles County. He posted bail and was arrested two weeks later on the federal fraud charge.

Authorities say the suspects were behind several websites and companies with different names. All advertised — some online, others in small neighborhood publications — that they could help people with no money and no credit cheaply lease or buy an assortment of vehicles.

"For the short or long term" one website says, "while building or rebuilding your credit, you choose."

The victims told similar stories. One told the Secret Service about answering an ad placed in the Penny-Saver magazine. The person met with one of the suspects on Nov. 19, 2010, and paid $500 toward a $2,000 down payment, court documents say. They met again four days later and the victim paid an additional $750.

Even though the full down payment had not been made, investigators said that on Nov. 26, the suspect took the person to an Enterprise rental agency — officials would not disclose the location — and rented a white Dodge Charger. Officials say workers at Enterprise assumed the transaction was backed by 2K Tek Business Solutions.

About one week later, court documents say, an official at Enterprise called the person who rented the Dodge "stating that the vehicle had to be returned." The caller also informed the renter that $213.47 was owed on the overdue account. "Victim 1 never received his 'down payment' back," the court documents state.

Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Missouri-based Enterprise Holdings, which also includes Alamo and National car rental companies, declined to comment on the case, calling it a "police matter." Two of the victims listed in the court documents rented cars from Enterprise; the third from Easy Auto Rent Inc.

Bongino, the Secret Service agent assigned to the Baltimore office, said the rental companies got most of their cars back, but lost late fees. However, he said, the companies waived the extra payments owed by the victims when they learned they had been duped in the alleged scam.

Bongino warned that even with the prime suspect behind bars, the websites remain active. The agent noted that the people who signed up for the program are poor and vulnerable. "There's a lot of sad stories," he said.

Anyone who thinks they might be a victim is urged to call federal authorities at 443-263-1000.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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