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The American Way

Mark Poutenis

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."

"So he's smart, my guy?"

"Yeah, and I've been arresting him for years. He could be another Bill Gates, but he's lazy. And this is easy money. One woman I talked to in New Jersey had $30,000 in unauthorized charges, but she didn't realize it 'til I pointed it out to her."

I'll admit that this conversation, as well as subsequent chats with Cherney, gave me an illicit thrill. He spoke exactly like a detective in a cheap mystery, right down to his constant dissing of the feds and his street talk. "Yeah, it's just like busting a prostitute," he told me once. "They always act all betrayed. 'I really liked you,' they say, like my heart's all broken because a prostitute doesn't like me anymore."

I now have a strong mental image of my nineteen-year-old criminal. I call him Duc. He lives at home with his immigrant parents and works part-time at a Japanese steakhouse in Wichita. He got into the illegal computer business only after spending months in a certain chat room, where he gradually learned the patois, and then he was finally admitted to the secret Web site. It was all very Dungeons and Dragons. He has never met any of the people he "works" with and knows them only by handles like Kato and Stud. But they all speak a common language.

"In most chat rooms, they'll say LOL to indicate laughter," Cherney told me. "When I'm sitting with my informant watching him chat, he sometimes ends a sentence with HAHAHAHA. It doesn't mean laughter at all. It means something secret and serious. He won't tell me what. Yet."

It takes Duc less than thirty seconds to unscramble a "secure" credit-card number; Cherney's watched him do it many times. He uses the cards to order computers that he has sent to vacant houses all over the country, where his partners in crime watch for the UPS men to arrive, then swoop in on the packages. The computers are offered for sale, at a deep discount, on the Web site. One recent deal: an $1800 Compaq Presario for $300. Kato, Stud and the rest of the guys manage to collect their money, but neither Cherney nor the feds can figure out how, to their eternal frustration.

"We have a jurisdiction problem like you've never seen," Cherney complained the other day. "When a guy in Wichita uses a stolen credit card to buy an item from New York and has it sent to South Carolina and then California and then Guam -- where did this crime occur if the owner of the credit card lives in Massachusetts?"

"I hear you," I said, because this is now my investigation, too. A day late and a dollar short -- that's where we 42-year-old gumshoes are with these teenage computer crooks, and the goddamn feds only clutter up the works. Cherney swears he's never told me anything "case-sensitive," but it sure feels that way. And the feeling is priceless -- far more fulfilling than anything my American Express card has ever bought me. For this, I have Duc to thank.

"I don't like him the way you do," Cherney said. "He's being a very bad informant. He hates police officers, and he's got a big chip on his shoulder about racism. I mean, this is the Bible Belt, and I'm sure he's experienced discrimination, but it's no excuse. He's too smart for excuses -- he messed around with gangs, but he got out because he was smart. I tell him he could go to work for corporations protecting them against people like him, but that's not where he's going right now. If he doesn't start cooperating, he's going to federal prison. And how smart is that?"

"Not very," I said glumly, wishing I could somehow get through to Duc. I owe him for the immoral but absorbing entertainment he's given me over the past three months. I would tell my nineteen-year-old genius criminal something profound, something case-sensitive. Think about it, Duc, I would say. Hahahaha.


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