In this case, a woman in Florida reported that she sent $225,000 to a Bozeman man who claimed he had a stockpile of unrefined gold and was looking for investors to finance refineries. He promised big returns. When that didn’t materialize, the investor got suspicious. She became angry over the investment. When he followed the money and confirmed their suspect, Carl Estep, wasn’t putting his investors’ money where he’d promised, Rice set up a sting. Only this time, he would play the patsy. Working with a female FBI agent from the Billings resident agency, Rice staged a ruse to pose as husband-and-wife investors who wanted a piece of Estep’s venture. They set up a meeting at the airport in Bozeman to make it seem as though they had just arrived from Chicago.
When investors didn’t see their promised returns, Carl Estep made elaborate excuses as to why they could not be paid. In reality, Estep did not own any refineries. He did not own the barrels of rock and sand. He did not make any expenditure to develop refineries, and he did not invest money overseas. He simply used the money for numerous personal expenditures, including cars, overseas travel, daily expenses, and unreasonably large expenses on his hunting dogs.In speaking with FBI agents, Estep acknowledged that he spent investor money on personal items and his that statements to investors were not 100 percent true since they did not know their money was used for his personal gain.
- Press release
“We came off the plane, we met him, and we sat down in the coffee shop,” Rice says. “I wore a camera and a wire—and he pitched the whole deal to me, the exact same deal that he pitched to the victim.”
It didn’t end there, though. Estep then escorted the would-be investors to a warehouse where he showed them stacks of barrels that he claimed each contained about 1,200 ounces of unrefined gold.
“It was the exact same pattern as what he did with these other people,” Rice says. “He flew them out here. He took them to the warehouse. He showed them the barrels stacked up. All he’d done was get his hands on a bunch of barrels with gravel in them. The rest was easy for him.”
The FBI tested samples from the barrels—which didn’t contain gold—and identified more victims, including the provider of the warehouse. Confronted with the evidence, Estep pleaded guilty in January and is now serving a four-year sentence.
“It’s not a small world for us anymore,” says Rice, an Idaho native, describing how even this once-remote area is no longer so, due in part to the Internet.
Comments:The Internet offers a global marketplace for consumers and businesses, but crooks also recognize the potentials of cyberspace. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognize the danger signs of fraud. If you are a victim or attempted victim of Internet fraud, it's important to report the scam quickly so that law enforcement agencies can shut the fraudulent operations down.