How to Commit a $200 Million Scam: Inside the Year’s Most Shocking Credit Card Fraud
The FBI says it busted an 18-person ring that spanned 8 countries and 28 states. This was no ordinary identity theft, writes Daniel Gross
Make Up. Pump Up. Run Up.
It’s not the latest exercise fad. Rather, according to the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it’s the three-step process through which an 18-person ring allegedly committed a stunning $200 million credit-card fraud.
The complaint, which can be seen here, describes what an FBI agent involved in the case called an “extensive, sophisticated, organized scheme.” A ring of people, ranging from a 31-year-old credit counselor in Philadelphia to a 74-year-old jeweler in northern New Jersey, allegedly conspired to make up fake identities, pump up credit profiles with more false information, and then run up huge unpaid credit-card bills.
All 18 people named in the indictment were charged with the same count of conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Only 13 have been arrested. One is out of the country, and authorities are looking for the other four, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.
The complaint describes something that resembles a multinational corporation—the enterprise “spanned at least 8 countries” (including Pakistan, India, China, Romania, and Japan), and at least 28 states. It involved the creation of 80 fake companies, more than 1,800 mailing addresses, 7,000 false identities, and 25,000 credit cards. It was as if the alleged fraudsters manufactured a small suburb, in which everyone had good credit at the beginning—only to walk away from big credit-card bills once they maxed out the plastic. The total cost is still being counted. But the U.S. says “final confirmed losses may grow substantially above the present confirmed losses of more than $200 million.”
Credit-card fraud is generally done with existing cards—crooks may hack the number, or get a new card sent to a different address, and then run up a bill until they get cut off. New account fraud is more difficult, time-consuming, but potentially more lucrative. The alleged fraudsters apparently read the personal finance literature on how to build and rebuild credit scores. They would apply for and receive low-spending-limit cards, make a few small purchases and pay down the balance. “This slowly increased the credit score of the false identities,” the complaint notes. Then, after the credit-card companies responded to the good behavior and improved scores by raising the spending limits, they would go on spending rampages and stop paying. This is also known as a bust-out scheme. “It’s not unique,” said Al Pascual, senior analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research. “It’s just that $200 million is huge. A bust out scheme of this scale is unprecedented.”
The alleged conspirators also used more devious means to bolster credit scores. They would build up a virtual credit history by purchasing or adding “tradelines,” meaning the lines of credit that appear in a credit history. So, for example, that might show a particular person opening an account with a certain bank on a set date. One of the alleged conspirators, Vernina Adams, who ran a business called One Stop Credit Shop, allegedly enabled the members of the ring to post tradelines on the credit histories of false identities. In January, Adams pleaded guilty to an apparently unrelated federal charge of identity theft in California.
The conspiracy also allegedly enlisted some apparently legitimate businesses. Four of the defendants ran jewelry stores in New Jersey, including Ashu Jewels, located on a gritty block in Jersey City a few blocks from the Pulaski Skyway. The merchants allegedly maintained several processing accounts with credit-card companies, in alternate business names and with a multitude of contact names. That allegedly enabled them to run through many transactions from fraudulent cards quickly. The complaint charges that members of the conspiracy used ill-gotten gains to purchase gold from the owners of the stores.
While most credit-card scams net small amounts of money, this was a major enterprise. The complaint notes that many of the defendants had no known employment, but were nonetheless moving large sums of cash around. Babar Qureshi, 59, of Iselin, New Jersey, is identified as one of the leaders of the conspiracy. According to the complaint, he didn’t have reported, legitimate employment. Yet last September, the government alleges, he made a $500,000 wire transfer.
The electronic cash was recycled into the real economy. The government alleges that members of the conspiracy used their gains to “purchase luxury automobiles, electronics, spa treatments, high-end clothing, and millions of dollars in gold.” Authorities also found $68,000 in cash in a kitchen oven in one of the alleged conspirator’s houses.
The complaint describes a massive robbery in which nobody had to confront a victim, wield a gun, or drive a getaway car. It was simply a matter of entering information into websites, swiping cards, and gaming the system. But that doesn’t make it any less audacious. “Electronic transactions, because of the velocity, can be very lucrative to a criminal,” said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management at the American Bankers Association. In recent years, check fraud has been flat and bank robberies have fallen. But Javelin Strategy estimates that in 2012, credit-card-fraud losses were approximately $10 billion. If that’s the case, then this one scheme alone accounted for about 2 percent of the total.
At a press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman cited the costs of such crime to the economy at large. The credit-card issuers suffer, he noted. But such efforts affect “everyone who deals with increased interest rates and fees because of the money sucked out of the system by criminals acting in fraud rings like this one.”