George Santos masterminded 2017 ATM fraud, former roommate tells feds
Santos, whose full name is George Anthony Devolder Santos, often went by Anthony Devolder before his first congressional bid in 2020. The New York Republican won a Long Island swing district last November after lying on the campaign trail about his education, work experience and supposed Jewish ancestry. The House ethics panel initiated an investigation into Santos last week to explore possible “unlawful activity” related to his run. State, federal and Brazilian authorities are also probing Santos related to a string of potential financial crimes. Santos has admitted to “embellishing” parts of his background, but said he never broke any laws.
He was previously questioned about the Seattle scheme by investigators for the U.S. Secret Service, CBS News has reported. He was never charged, but the investigation remains open. Santos also told an attorney friend he was “an informant” in the fraud case. Trelha insists he was its mastermind.
“Santos taught me how to skim card information and how to clone cards. He gave me all the materials and taught me how to put skimming devices and cameras on ATM machines,” Trelha said in the declaration that was submitted to authorities by his New York attorney, Mark Demetropoulos. POLITICO obtained a copy of the declaration.
Spokespeople for the FBI did not return messages. Representatives for the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
A lawyer for Santos also did not respond to emails and text messages for comment.
Trelha and Santos met in the fall of 2016 on a Facebook group for Brazilians living in Orlando, Fla., he said in the declaration and in an interview with POLITICO. By November, Trelha had rented a room in Santos’ Winter Park, Fla., apartment, according to a copy of the lease viewed by POLITICO.
“That is when and where I learned from him how to clone ATM and credit cards,” Trelha wrote in the declaration that was translated from his native Portuguese.
Santos kept a warehouse on Kirkman Road in Orlando to store the skimming equipment, according to the declaration.
“He had a lot of material — parts, printers, blank ATM and credit cards to be painted and engraved with stolen account and personal information.
“Santos gave me at his warehouse, some of the parts to illegally skim credit card information. Right after he gave me the card skimming and cloning machines, he taught me how to use them,” Trelha wrote.
Trelha then flew out to Seattle where he was caught on a security camera removing a skimming device from a Chase ATM on Pike Street, according to law enforcement records. He was arrested on April 27.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle previously told POLITICO it’s not unusual for credit card thieves to go far from home to nab numbers so there’s less chance of the stolen numbers being traced back to the perpetrators. That spokesperson, Emily Langlie, said she didn’t have any information about Santos’ involvement in the Trelha case.
At the time of his arrest, Trelha had a fake Brazilian ID card and 10 suspected fraudulent cards in his hotel room, according to police documents. An empty FedEx package police found in his rental car was sent from the Winter Park unit he shared with Santos.
Trelha told federal authorities in the declaration Wednesday that his “deal with Santos was 50% for him and 50% for me.”
“We used a computer to be able to download the information on the pieces. We also used an external hard drive to save the filming, because the skimmer took the information from the card, and the camera took the password,” he wrote.
“It didn’t work out so well, because I was arrested,” he admitted.
Trelha said Santos visited him in jail in Seattle, but told him not to implicate him in the scheme.
“Santos threatened my friends in Florida that I must not say that he was my boss,” he wrote.
Trelha agreed to say he was working for someone in Brazil and not with Santos, because he was worried Santos would have his friends in Orlando deported, he said in a telephone interview last month. Trelha recalled Santos warning he could “make things worse for him” since he was already in jail and Santos was a U.S. citizen.
In an audio recording of Trelha’s May 15, 2017 arraignment in King County Superior Court, Santos tells the judge he’s a “family friend” who was there to secure a local Airbnb if the defendant was released on bail.
Santos also claimed to the judge he worked for Goldman Sachs in New York, a key part of his campaign biography he later admitted wasn’t true.
Trehla was unable to post the $75,000 bail. He pleaded guilty to felony access device fraud, served seven months in jail and was deported to Brazil in early 2018.
“Santos did not help me to get out of jail. He also stole the money that I had collected for my bail,” Trelha told federal investigators in the declaration.
Trelha told POLITICO that before flying to Seattle, Santos had traveled to Orlando to pick up $20,000 in cash he instructed Leide Oliveira Santos, another roommate, to give him from a safe. Santos had promised to hire El Chapo’s lawyer for Trelha, he said. A third roommate in the Winter Park apartment told POLITICO in a phone interview that Oliveira Santos told him Santos had come to get money for Trelha. The third roommate spoke on condition of anonymity because he was in the country as an undocumented immigrant.
But Trelha never heard from Santos after Santos visited him in Seattle, the third roommate said. He later learned from Oliveira Santos that her attempts to contact Santos over the next few months were futile.
Trelha realized he had been conned, he said, when no lawyer appeared — let alone El Chapo’s.
But he still didn’t want to name Santos as a co-conspirator, fearing retaliation against Oliveira Santos, who was also an undocumented immigrant, he said.
Trelha told the federal authorities in the declaration that he had witnesses to support his statements. Oliveira Santos declined to discuss the matter with POLITICO.
“I am available to speak with any American government investigator,” Trelha wrote before providing his email address and cellular phone number and attesting that he signed the declaration “willingly and truthfully.”
A federal prosecutor who handled Trelha’s case described the scheme as “sophisticated,” adding that the Seattle portion was only “the tip of the iceberg,” according to court records reported by CBS News. But a person close to the investigation who is not authorized to speak publicly said they saw no evidence that prosecutors did forensic reports on Trelha’s phone or seemed motivated to pursue international co-conspirators.