New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced May 25 the guilty pleas from the defendants in a $1.3 million internet fraud scheme that tricked businesses throughout the country and abroad into paying for specialized aviation equipment that was never received.
According to law enforcement authorities, the scheme, which operated from February 2017 through March 2022, was orchestrated by Antonio Signo, 36, of Somerset, who also used the alias “Tony Demetro,” with assistance from his father (Sonny Signo, 55, of Elizabeth) and his son (Eddie Signo, 29, of Iselin), and two others (Champagne Thompson, 30, of Iselin, and Cindy Drake, 37, of Somerset).
Using phony websites advertising the sale of aircraft equipment and parts, businesses were lured into wiring money to accounts controlled by the defendants. During that five-year period, more than 200 businesses fell victim to the scheme, including operators of national and international corporate and charter jet services.
The victim companies were directed to wire funds into one of the more than 50 bank accounts the members of the scheme controlled. The victims would wire the funds as directed, but never receive the items they paid for. When they sought to reverse the wire payments, they discovered that the funds had been withdrawn from the receiving bank account, which in many instances was then closed.
Following an investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice with assistance from the Newark Field Office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, the defendants were arrested in March 2022.
Last August, the lead defendant, Antonio Signo, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree theft by deception in Somerset County Superior Court. Under the terms of that plea agreement, Signo remains in Somerset County Jail since his arrest. The state will recommend he be sentenced to eight years in prison.
This week, the four other defendants pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Kevin Shanahan in Somerset.
Those guilty pleas include:
During the hearings on Monday, both Signos and Thompson admitted to using bank accounts to receive stolen funds and to withdraw the stolen funds from the accounts. Drake admitted to knowingly receiving thousands of dollars from the scheme.
The case was prosecuted through the recently launched Office of Securities Fraud and Financial Crimes Prosecutions.
“The rise of digital commerce has made it easier for criminals pretending to be legitimate businesses to defraud victims near and far,” said Pablo Quinones, legal chief of the OSFFCP. “While potential victims always should be alert for such scams, these defendants’ pleas underscore our commitment to identifying and holding accountable the perpetrators of such fraudulent schemes.”
In a statement, Platkin said that a key function of OSFFCP is putting a stop to these types of online financial crimes and catching those who perpetrate them.
“I commend DCJ and HIS for their work in dismantling this criminal operation,” said Platkin. “The guilty pleas we secured make it clear that those who violate the law may try to use the anonymity of the internet to fool their victims, but they cannot hide from justice.”s