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By Jonathan Harwood

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (December 22 2001 - Cook Islands News)---The Cook Islands police may have smashed an international crime ring, wanted by the FBI.

Plain clothed officers swooped into an Avarua restaurant Thursday afternoon and arrested a 34-year-old man traveling on a South African passport.

He is allegedly part of an elaborate sting operation that has so far evaded security forces, including the FBI, all over the world.

The arrested man, Albert Tshabalala, is believed to have tried to trick wealthy businessmen and church groups out of large sums of money by claiming to be in possession of millions of U.S. dollars in a "micro-film carbonated" form.

He has gotten them to hand over cash to help him convert the notes into legal tender before disappearing.

A search of his room at a hotel on Rarotonga uncovered several bottles of chemicals and a suitcase containing apparently false dollar bills with a value of up to US$ 2 million.

Members of the CI Criminal Investigations Bureau swung into action after reports that an offer that was "too good to be true" had been made to a businessman on Rarotonga.

They spoke to the person who claimed to have been approached by the man, but as they interviewed him another identical report came in.

This time the officers told the informant to continue with a pre-arranged meeting with the suspect.

As the conference took place at an Avarua eatery, undercover officers looked on before springing into action and taking the man into custody.

Police Commissioner Pira Wichman said he was proud of his men for their part in the operation.

He added that the police had been contacted in July by international bodies and told to be on the lookout for the con artist.

"How the scam works is that a meeting is set up with potential victims. They are told that the man represents a major organization like the UN, and he shows them a letter."

The letter, seen by the CINews, is signed by a William Dixon, Authorized Secret Service Agent from the USA, but contains several spelling and grammatical errors.

Wichman said the letter convinces people that the conman is legitimate.

"He says that they are in possession of money from the United States, but that it is still in its "ink" form," he explained.

Wichman said that the fraudster will then show the victim a black slip of paper the size of a note and apply chemicals to it.

When the chemicals are applied the paper begins to resemble a US$ 20 bill.

The con artist will then take the note to a bank and convert it into local currency -- convincing the victim that the note is real -- before asking for money for more chemicals in return for a cut of the U.S. money.

A suitcase found at the man’s hotel room contained note-sized slips of paper that if converted into US$ 20 bills would be worth between US$ 1.5 and US$ 2 million.

Tshabalala appeared in court today charged with an offence of forgery relating to a single note.

Wichman said that other charges were expected to be laid against the man, who was remanded in custody at a court hearing yesterday.

He added that the man’s South African passport showed that he had visited a number of other countries before arriving on Rarotonga on December 4.

"We have been in contact with the FBI, the South Pacific International Network and various police authorities throughout the Pacific and the New Zealand Serious Fraud Office.

"There has been a lot of interest expressed by those forces. This is an international scam and now we can put a face to it."

Wichman asked for any other Cook Islanders who had been approached by the man to come forward.

Tshabalala is expected to stand trial in the Cook Islands next year and may also face charges elsewhere.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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