COVINGTON - Most con artists agree - Covington looks like a small, quiet town where you can get away with breaking the law without being noticed.
Not so, according to Covington Police Department Detective Daniel Seals, who certainly proved the idea untrue last week when he uncovered what appears to be a financial transaction fraud ring that reaches around the world.
Seals said he received a tip from the Marietta branch of Citibank that a person using a fraudulent Social Security number was attempting to get a loan from the Covington Citibank branch. Seals said the Marietta branch had already given the suspect $12,500 before learning the Social Security number was fraudulent. A search of their records showed a pending transaction for just under $6,000 in Covington.
Seals said he put a watch on the Covington Citibank branch, located behind Blockbuster in the Covington Gallery shopping center on Turner Lake Road.
"We went in and arrested him while he was literally signing for the loan under a Social Security number that was not his," Seals said.
The man, along with an associate who was later discovered at a Covington home, are both African immigrants from Botswana. Seals said he believes the two men to be "main players" in a widespread financial conspiracy.
Phinda Sibanda, 33, whose immigration status has expired, and Enockdee Nyambe, 33, both of 295 Riverstone Drive, were charged with financial identity fraud. Sibanda was additionally charged with forgery in the first degree.
Seals said Sibanda refused to speak without an attorney or to acknowledge any ties with the Riverstone Drive home and listed his address as 860 Johnson Ferry Road, Atlanta.
Although Nyambe is in the U.S. legally, the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has put an investigatory hold on both men due to their potential involvement with the far-reaching financial fraud ring, Seals said.
Seals said once he had taken Sibanda into custody, a search was made of his vehicle as part of the arrest procedure.
"We found paperwork in his truck indicating a lot of identify theft. I'm talking from that paperwork fraud that's into seven figures. There is evidence of accounts, buildings, houses, cars that's not even included in that figure. You name it and they were doing it if they could do it in somebody else's name, identification or Social Security number. It is far-reaching - other states, out of the country - all of it suspected to be related to multiple identity thefts," Seals said.
Once he found the paperwork, Seals said he went to the Riverstone Drive home to see who was there who might know anything about the first suspect.
"Another guy answers the door and it becomes apparent that he is hip deep into it as well, and we arrested him for financial identity fraud," Seals said.
The detective said he was then faced with the decision of trying to work alone on what he could see was a mammoth case and stretch local resources or turn it over to the federal authorities, who are better equipped for such an investigation.
He called the FBI, which showed extreme interest in what Seals had discovered. Twelve agents converged on Covington to take over the investigation.
"The local charges are pending here. Our investigation is a springboard to allow the FBI to begin their investigation," Seals said, adding that other detectives and patrol officers from his office, as well as deputies and investigators from the Newton County Sheriff's Office, have assisted in securing evidence and making sure everything is properly handed over to the federal authorities.
Seals also praised the cooperation authorities received from Citibank, especially the tip that set the whole investigation in motion.
"If we're given a tip, we're going to treat it as absolute gold and do what we can to find out all about it. It was absolutely necessary for us to do what we did. We moved fast, everybody was safe and the bad guys went to jail," he said.
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.