The American Way

The young crook got my credit-card number. He also got my attention.

At first he pissed me off. Then he worried me. Then he fascinated me. So imagine how I felt when I found out he was only nineteen!

"We're just calling to okay the purchase of the motherboard," said the man on the phone. "We're gonna charge your account the $600 and send it to California, right?"

"What's a motherboard?" I asked.

"Why are you ordering it if you don't know what it is?"

"Because I didn't order it," I said. "Who did?"

"We can't tell you that."

"Well, he can't have the motherboard, whoever he is. Come on, who is he? Is he in Colorado? How did he get my credit-card number?"

"Do you ever order things over the Internet?"

In the preceding month, I'd ordered ten books, two CDs, two pairs of silver sneakers at $5 per, a Cuban guayabera shirt for my father-in-law and a selection of high-altitude tomato seeds. Never having enjoyed the physical act of shopping, my transition to the virtual mall was easy. But now I felt violated.

"What about that secure-connection thing?" I asked.

"You'd better call your credit-card company," he replied. "The guy isn't in Colorado."

"How do you know it's a guy?"

He wouldn't tell me.

I soon learned from American Express that, in the preceding 24 hours, my card had been used to secure car rentals and hotel rooms all over the state of California. Judging from the charges, the cars were sporty and the rooms not of the Budgetel variety. At the very moment I was reporting the card stolen, someone was driving what should have been my Mitsubishi Montero through the Napa Valley. I yanked his funding immediately.

But I hardly suffered from his crime. My next month's statement showed only $111.80 in unauthorized purchases, none of which I was liable for. The charges were incurred at places like Cybernet Vendors of Panama City, Panama, and the DTI Corporation of Minnesota -- neither of which could be contacted by phone. At first, the $59.95 charge to something called KAGI seemed like a long shot; the firm exists only to process credit-card orders for 5,000 different companies doing business on the Internet. But Rhonda in customer service proved very forthcoming.

"He bought a program called Nanny 2000," she confided, "and had it sent to 305 Durley Avenue in Camarillo, California. His name is Tom Driscoll. His e-mail address is Robinabcd@aol.com."

Rhonda thought the Nanny 2000 was a filtering program designed to prevent teens from accessing porn on the Net. This seemed unlikely for my wine-drinking, sports-car-driving, motherboard-ordering personal thief. Did he have hidden depth? Hidden children? I decided to drop him an e-mail.

"Dear Tom," I wrote. "How was Napa? Did you ever find a sucker to pay for the motherboard? I know you didn't ask for my opinion, but I think you should examine your own moral framework instead of worrying about what your kids are reading on the Net. If kids read at all, they're ahead of the game. Whereas, from what I hear, white-collar crime is an iffy career choice."

The e-mail came back as undeliverable. Duh. Tom Driscoll had set up a generic e-mail account and maintained it for less than a month. And he wasn't Tom Driscoll, either.

By this time I had received an earnest letter from R. Reardon at American Express Fraud Investigations, assuring me that all veins would be mined in the search for the man who'd scammed my card. I called for details.

"We're a very large company here at American Express," said a sour, anonymous woman from somewhere in Florida. "We have 70,000 employees. I have no way of knowing who R. Reardon is or where he works."

"Just tell me the name of the man who stole my card," I begged.

"No. For security purposes, that information is unavailable to you. I can release it to a member of a law-enforcement agency."

A few days later, I caught a break when an actual law-enforcement officer called: a gravel-voiced former New Yorker who currently works as an investigator with the Wichita Police Department.

"This is Detective Cherney," he said, "working on a credit-card fraud case. Have you eaten at any Chinese buffets or Japanese steakhouses lately?"

Had I? I couldn't remember.

"These people are tied up in that business. They have people working for them who know what restaurants don't tear up their carbon copies. They have people infiltrating these steakhouses. But they probably got your card on the Web."

"Who's 'they'?" I asked.

"A group in California is behind this whole thing. It's becoming a federal case. They steal credit cards, order computer stuff, have it sent all over the country and then sell it, cheap, on a secret Web site. They recruit these smart Asian teenagers and get them into it. The guy who took your card is Laotian. He's here in Wichita, and he's our informant. The people in L.A. would kill him if they knew who he was."

I was speechless. "Wow," I finally said. "I feel so stupid."

"Yeah, join the club," Cherney sighed. "We have two forensic computer experts here, and they're nowhere near as educated as the bad guys."

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