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Tales of credit card crooks' quirky charges

Small-time thefts don't spare thieves from big-time charges

By Michelle Crouch

Most scammers follow a similar pattern after they steal a credit card, experts say: They buy a bunch of big-ticket items in a hurry, and then ditch the card fairly quickly. But some crooks are more quirky, making unusual purchases that leave the rest of us to wonder what they were thinking.

Case in point: a thief in Boca Raton, Fla., who recently racked up $717 over two months using a stolen Discover card at just one place, a local Burger King restaurant. The suspect averaged $14 a day in burgers and chicken on the card, according to the police report, sometimes using it as many as five times a day. At first, the victim thought her son was using her card. But when he said he hadn't been to any Burger Kings, she realized her card was missing and reported it stolen. Police are still searching for the culprit.

Low-level thieves may use stolen credit cards on trivial things such as pizza or burgers so they can justify their crimes as not really serious, said Heith Copes, an associate professor in the justice department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who interviews convicted thieves. Others are in such a rush to spend the cash -- or want something so desperately -- that they don't think through the likely consequences.

CreditCards.com went digging to find other recent examples of unconventional credit card thieves who made eyebrow-raising or unusual purchases. Here are some of our favorites:

Most scammers follow a similar pattern after they steal a credit card, experts say: they buy a bunch of big-ticket items in a hurry, and then ditch the card fairly quickly. But some crooks are more quirky, making unusual purchases that leave the rest of us to wonder what they were thinking.

Case in point: A thief in Boca Raton, Fla., who recently racked up $717 over two months using a stolen Discover card at just one place, a local Burger King restaurant. The suspect averaged $14 a day in burgers and chicken on the card, according to the police report, sometimes using it as many as five times a day. At first, the victim thought her son was using her card. But when he said he hadn't been to any Burger Kings, she realized her card was missing and reported it stolen. Police are still searching for the culprit.

Low-level thieves may use stolen credit cards on trivial things like pizza or burgers so they can justify their crimes as not really serious, said Heith Copes, an associate professor in the Justice Department at the University of Alabama Birmingham who interviews convicted thieves. Others are in such a rush to spend the cash -- or want something so desperately -- that they don't think through the likely consequences.

Creditcards.com went digging to find other recent examples of unconventional credit card thieves who made eyebrow-raising or unusual purchases. Here are some of our favorites:

World's worst daughter-in-law. A Billings, Montana, woman admitted earlier this year to stealing her future father-in-law's credit card and racking up almost $6,000 in charges.  Yellowstone County Sheriff's Detective Shane Bancroft said he launched an investigation in March after a man reported that his credit card had been stolen and had been used for at least 55 transactions he didn't authorize. When the man examined the transactions, Bancroft said, he made a disturbing discovery: many of the purchases appeared to be wedding-related, including a payment to the hotel where his son had his wedding reception.  That led police to the man's daughter-in-law: Brittany Sterna-Lanaghan, who eventually pled guilty. As part of the plea deal, Sterna-Lanaghan had to write a letter of apology to her father-in-law. 

A scammer with manners. A thief added insult to injury earlier this year when he sent a thank-you note and flowers to a Rhode Island woman whose credit card he stole, Boston's WHDH-TV reported. The Narragansett, R.I., victim said her bank alerted her in March that someone had charged $2,400 to her credit card, mostly in online purchases. The fraudulent charges included $65 for flowers that were delivered to her home. To her horror, the flowers included a note that read: "txnx for ur money."

Marlboro man. In Florida, Broward sheriff's office detectives are looking for a man who is allegedly stealing credit cards to get his cigarette fix. Surveillance video from several different stores shows the man buying cartons of cigarettes with stolen credit cards, according to a sheriff's office press release. Detectives believe he is responsible for multiple car burglaries throughout the county since 2008. The man routinely uses stolen credit cards at grocery or convenience stores -- and buys Marlboros every time.

Foolhardy football fan. A young man who stole a credit card from a woman's car in New Orleans in 2008 used the card to buy a ticket to that night's NFL Saints game against the Minnesota Vikings. Police said they arrived just before halftime, found him in his assigned seat and arrested him. "You would think if you were going to buy a ticket to get in the stadium (on a stolen credit card), you would go sit somewhere else," Maj. Greg Elder, commander of the police department's third district, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune

Big Mac mom. Sheriff's police were called to a gas station in Will County, Ill., in April after a woman reported that her wallet had been stolen from her car while she pumped gas. The victim told police that the suspect fled in a green van, and that her credit card company was already reporting a charge from the McDonalds down the street. So police went to the restaurant, less than 50 yards away from the crime scene, said police spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer. "A beat-up, green van that matched the description was still parked outside," she said. Police found Estellamarie Ruiz, 29, inside the van with her two children, eating McDonalds burgers. They arrested her and charged her with credit card fraud after matching her receipt with the last four numbers of the missing card.

Hungry hospital patient. Antone Charles Santos, 43, was charged in June with stealing the wallet of another patient in his room at WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga. According to Marietta Police Sgt. Meg McClure, who investigated the incident, Santos initially hid his roommate's wallet under his pillow. A short time later, however, he was in the mood for pizza and called for delivery. There was just one problem: he didn't have his glasses. "He asked the nurse to read the number on the card," McClure said, and she immediately noticed the card wasn't in his name.

Here's your pizza. You're under arrest.  Another crook with a craving for pizza got more than he bargained for when he called Edwardo's Pizza in January and placed an $80 order with a stolen card, police said. It was the second time William Peppers of Chicago had ordered pizza with the card, which had been flagged as stolen, so Edwardo's employees were on alert. They took the order and called police. "We had a couple officers dress as pizza delivery guys and put the Edwardo's sign on an unmarked car," said Skokie police officer Joe Marzigliano. "We pulled up with the pizza, and he signed for it. Then he was placed under arrest."

See related: Identity theft booms, even as thieves rely on old-fashioned methods

Published: November 17, 2011


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