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George Santos was interviewed by police in 2017 international credit card fraud probe

Campaign of Deceit | CBS Reports
Campaign of Deceit: The Election of George Santos | CBS Reports 22:49

In the early evening on April 27, 2017, a Chase Bank security officer in Seattle watched through an ATM's camera as a man approached and removed a card-skimming device.

Moments later, police officers pounced, arresting the man, Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha, then an Orlando, Florida, resident. The case would lead to a guilty plea and Trelha's deportation back to his native Brazil. It also led an investigator — for reasons still not entirely clear — to George Santos, the future New York congressman.

With each passing day, new revelations have emerged about the murky past of the freshman Republican, who was elected in November 2022 from a New York district that encompasses parts of Queens and Long Island. Despite glaring misstatements on his resume, Santos has vowed to hang onto his seat even as fresh discoveries about his past emerge. His election was the subject of a recent CBS Reports documentary, "Campaign of Deceit."

Reports have indicated law enforcement agencies have been looking into the financing of his campaign, his stewardship of a pet charity and his work for a company that was later ensnared in a Ponzi scheme probe. Santos has denied all allegations of wrongdoing in those cases.

CBS News has now learned of yet another curious wrinkle — the surfacing of Santos' name during a 2017 credit-card skimming and identity-theft probe in Washington state.

The defendant in the case, Trelha, cooperated that evening with detectives, allowing them to search his rental car. Inside they found an empty FedEx package with a sender address in Winter Park, Florida, according to the police report. The address was one of George Santos' former residences. 

Six months earlier, in October 2016, a ticket for failing to stop at a red light in Florida was issued to Santos, listing the same Winter Park address. It's unclear if the address led investigators to Santos, or if he was ever a suspect in the credit card investigation, but a law enforcement source confirmed he was interviewed as part of the probe. 

One acquaintance of Santos told CBS News he claimed in 2020 to have served as a confidential informant in the case, but she now questions whether that was true.

Trelha would later claim he was paid $100 per day by a group based in Brazil and Florida to place and remove card skimmers, according to court documents. In his hotel room in SeaTac, Washington, detectives found another skimming device, three modified ATM cameras, identification bearing a pseudonym — Matos Fontinele — and 10 fraudulent cards linked to stolen numbers.

Prosecutors said they had evidence Trelha compromised nearly 300 accounts with the card skimmer in just three days in Seattle. They said each night Trelha uploaded skimmed account information to a "cloud" service, where the Brazilian group could access the information. Calling the operation "sophisticated," a prosecutor said they believed it was just "the tip of the iceberg," according to a court transcript. Trelha was sentenced to time served, having already spent more than seven months in jail, and was then turned over to immigration authorities.

"We don't really know, frankly, the full extent and the full harm that was caused by this offense," Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Diggs said at Trelha's sentencing, after he entered a guilty plea to one count of felony access device fraud.

A sentencing memorandum submitted by Trelha's attorney includes a letter by a person named "Leide Santos," claiming to be Trelha's girlfriend. She described Trelha as a former flight attendant involved in a construction business in Florida and said he was "dedicated to his son" in Brazil. 

"Leide Santos" described starting a business with Trelha in Florida, but CBS News was unable to locate records listing either name in Florida's Division of Corporations database. CBS News was unable to locate or contact anyone named "Leide Santos" who fit her description. There is no indication "Leide Santos" and George Santos are related.

A representative for Santos and his lawyer did not reply to questions sent by CBS News. Santos has previously acknowledged communicating with Seattle police about the investigation, according to childhood friend Tiffany Bogosian.

She learned of the episode while providing Santos with advice, as a friend, on a different legal matter, a Pennsylvania warrant related to bounced checks. Politico reported that the Pennsylvania case led to a theft charge, but Santos claimed his checkbook had been stolen, and the charge was later expunged.

"He believed that the warrant had something to do with a prior incident where he was an informant for the Seattle Police Department, for, you know, a fraudulent kind of ring of, like, credit-card making and things like that," Bogosian said during a January interview with CBS News.

The Seattle Police Department did not reply to a request for comment. 

Bogosian provided CBS News with an email she sent in February 2020 to a Pennsylvania state trooper and a Seattle detective in which she described Santos' alleged portrayal of his contact with that detective.

Santos claimed he "was a liaison/informant to his office on a case against a defendant in Washington (Gustavo Ribeiro) and at least three other defendants in the State of Florida, who were committing identity theft and perpetrating frauds as part of a conspiracy ring," Bogosian wrote, adding that Santos had supplied information to the detective provided "by [Santos'] 2017 roommate, a person only known as 'Sydney Lima.'"

CBS News has been unable to contact "Sydney Lima" or confirm that this individual exists. 

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