Pinellas County sheriff's detectives arrested a 44-year-old Crystal Beach man and charged him with using fraud and identity theft to steal at least $128,000, officials said Friday.
William E. Brown, of 629 Mayo St. N, was the target of an investigation that started with a phone call in August 2005.
It was a retired law enforcement officer in Pennsylvania contacting the Sheriff's Office to figure out why an attorney with Discover Credit Card was trying to collect a $12,000 debt from a business that he allegedly owned in Safety Harbor.
That was impossible, the retired officer said, because not only did he not own a business, he had never even visited Florida.
Eventually, sheriff's Detective Stephanie Pagels would piece together the connection.
The retiree in Pennsylvania - along with victims in Delaware and Virginia - all had recently purchased marine parts from Brown's business in Safety Harbor through ads in Boat Trader magazine, authorities said.
Brown required all three to send him a cashier's check along with a "personal information sheet" that included their Social Security numbers, Pagels said.
They all received the part they purchased, Pagels said, but Brown then used their information to open bank accounts and acquire credit card-processing machines, officials said.
Brown, who was released from the Pinellas County Jail Thursday after posting $70,000 bail, declined to comment when reached Friday evening, citing advice from his attorney.
Pagels said it took more than a year to sift through a box of financial records and unravel Brown's web of chicanery.
With the help of investigators from the credit card issuers, she said investigators examined transactions of five businesses at 935 Harbor Lake Drive, Suite C, she said.
State records showed that Brown listed himself as owner of all five entities, even the two which had financial accounts and records registered in the names of his unwitting customers, investigators found.
Deputies arrested Brown at his home at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, charging him with one count of scheming to defraud, one count of depositing money with an intent to defraud and three counts of criminal use of personal identification. Pagels said Brown could face a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.
Times staff writer Robin Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.
Anyone with information related to the investigation can reach Detective Stephanie Pagels at (727) 582-6200.