Watch CBS News

George Santos was questioned by U.S. Secret Service in 2017 credit card fraud probe

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

When George Santos' Florida address was found in 2017 inside a rental car used by the suspect in an ATM skimming investigation, the United States Secret Service came knocking.

Investigators from the agency located Santos in New York City, the future congressman's hometown, where they interviewed him as part of a probe into international credit card fraud, according to two sources familiar with the federal investigation. The Secret Service conducts investigations into crimes against the financial system that have a national scope.

Santos voluntarily surrendered two cellphones at the Secret Service's New York field office, where the interview took place, according to the two sources familiar with the investigation. While Santos' connection to the case remains unclear, and the case remains open, he was not identified as a suspect of the investigation, the two sources told CBS News. 

Santos' interaction with federal investigators is the latest wrinkle in a little-known affair that began when a man Santos called a "family friend" was arrested in Seattle on April 27, 2017. The case that emerged against that friend revealed an effort to skim ATM numbers from unsuspecting tourists at the city's iconic Pike Place Market, and transmit them to Brazil to be used illegally.

In a statement, the Secret Service told CBS News, when asked to comment on the open investigation, "The Secret Service does not confirm or comment on the absence or existence of specific investigations."

Santos has declined to discuss the case. In response to questions about the case, the congressman's spokesperson directed CBS News to contact Santos' lawyer, who did not respond.

A Seattle detective also interviewed Santos, calling him shortly after police charged the friend, Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha, according to a law enforcement source. Santos was contacted by local investigators for the same reason the Secret Service tracked him down, because his former Florida residence was listed as the sender address on a FedEx package found in Trelha's vehicle. Santos told Seattle police during that interview that he had no idea that Trelha was involved in criminal activity, according to the law enforcement source.

An ATM security camera in Seattle captured this image of Gustavo Ribeiro Trelha in 2017. Trelha later pleaded guilty to one federal count in connection with a card-skimming fraud investigation. Obtained by CBS News

Trelha would later enter a guilty plea to one federal count of felony access device fraud and was deported to his native Brazil. But before federal prosecutors took over his case, he was held in a King County jail. 

Santos appeared at Trelha's bail hearing on May 15, 2017, describing him as a "family friend" from Brazil. During the hearing, Santos can be heard in court audio falsely telling the judge that he was employed at the investment firm Goldman Sachs.

"You work for Goldman Sachs in New York?" the judge asked. 

"Yup," Santos said. Santos appears to address the court without being sworn in.

Court audio: George Santos falsely told a judge he worked for Goldman Sachs 01:11

It was a lie Santos repeated as he campaigned for Congress in 2020 and 2022, claiming to be a Goldman Sachs banker on the trail and on a resumé released in January by the local GOP. In the months since his election, Santos has weathered a stream of revelations about fabrications he's told, as well as news that state and federal investigators are probing his campaign and finances.

Santos was not a suspect in the Seattle police case against Trelha. The law enforcement source said there "was not enough evidence to associate Santos as an accomplice."

At Trelha's bail hearing, Santos told a judge he was helping Trelha by arranging "a long extended-stay apartment through Airbnb, or whatever website." 

"We're family friends. Our parents know each other from Brazil," Santos said.

Trelha never ended up staying in that Airbnb. His bail was reduced from $250,000 to $75,000, a sum Trelha was still unable to post. He remained in jail until his guilty plea seven months later, when he was sentenced to time served and transferred to immigration authorities for deportation.

Trelha told investigators he was paid $100 per day to install and remove skimming devices from ATM machines, uploading the retrieved customer data to a cloud service, according to court documents. He said members of a credit card fraud group based in Brazil and Florida downloaded the data. 

Prosecutors called the operation "sophisticated" and said they had evidence Trelha had compromised nearly 300 accounts with the card skimmer in just three days in Seattle. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.