ORLANDO -- Mihaly Kulcsar said he’s never met his employers.
They recruited him in Hungary for a job in Florida, paying his airfare and hotel when he arrived last year.
All of his instructions were sent electronically, Kulcsar says. They gave him fake passports, told him where to go, what to do and how to deal with hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds.
By the time Kulcsar realized the magnitude of his American job, he said, it was too late to back out.
Federal authorities in Orlando said Kulcsar, 33, was part of an Internet fraud ring that bilked unsuspecting auto buyers out of thousands of dollars by “selling” vehicles that didn’t exist.
“When I realized what was going on and when I saw what kind of money we’re talking about, then I got really frightened,” said Kulcsar, who claims to speak four languages and have an economics degree.
Today, Kulcsar is facing more than a dozen charges and more than 25 years in federal prison for his alleged involvement in the scheme.
“It was the worst time of my life, being here and doing this,” Kulcsar said.
Internet auto fraud is one of the most common types of cybercrime in America, and there are cases nearly identical to Kulcsar’s across the country.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center – known as IC3 – roughly 17,150 people reported being victimized by online auto fraud in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
The loss associated with those complaints: more than $64 million.
Federal agencies have been investigating Eastern European cyberfraud organizations for years.
Authorities unsealed criminal charges against Romanian fugitive Nicolae Popescu late last year, alleging he is the leader of an international, multimillion-dollar cyberfraud scheme.
Agents say Popescu and his associates flooded websites such as eBay, Cars.com and AutoTrader.com with detailed listings for cars, motorcycles, boats and other high-priced items that did not exist.
When the victims wired their money to buy the vehicles, the group’s associates withdrew the funds from the U.S. bank accounts and transferred the money to the suspects in Europe.
FBI agent Dave Couvertier said some people who are recruited to work in Internet-fraud schemes in America are duped into it.
Others, he said, come knowing the risks of the criminal activity but are willing to take the chance.
The ringleaders of these networks, Couvertier said, “don’t want to operate here personally because they put themselves in a situation where they can be arrested.”
“If they can send soldiers out front, that’s going to be collateral damage for them,” Couvertier said.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office detectives say they see dozens of Internet-fraud cases each week, ranging from the auto schemes to home-rental scams.
One victim who thought he was buying dump trucks was scammed out of $100,000, said Cpl. Jerry Preston. In another case, a man living in the Czech Republic sold a nonexistent Mercedes on Craigslist dozens of times.
Unfortunately for the victims of Internet auto schemes, there isn’t much detectives can do because their money is almost always wired out of the country, Preston said.
Last year, local Bank of America employees were on alert to look out for a man who matched Kulcsar’s description because, authorities said, he was involved with prior illegal fund transfers.
When Kulcsar arrived July 26 at a branch in Orlando, bank employees called law enforcement. At that time, Kulcsar had a fake passport that identified him as “Martin Novac.”
Authorities said Kulcsar and his associates created fictitious corporations, such as Global Trader Service, and opened bank accounts in Orlando and Tampa using fake passports. Kulcsar was paid a 3 percent commission for his work.
According to court records, Kulcsar told investigators he knew the job was illegal, but he “decided to take the risk to make money.”