Feds bust sophisticated credit card ring that stole $200 million
International con allegedly created 7,000 false IDs, 25,000 bogus cards
In a massive manipulation of the credit card system, a New
Jersey-based fraud ring stole more than $200 million by creating 7,000 false
identities to ring up fraudulent charges over a span of years, federal prosecutors
"We believe it is one of the biggest [bank frauds] the
Department of Justice has ever uncovered," said Matthew Reilly, a spokesman
in the New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office.
Thirteen defendants appeared in federal
court in Newark Tuesday after being arrested Monday on conspiracy to commit
bank fraud, he said. The charge carries up to 30 years in jail plus maximum
fines of $1 million.
They and five other defendants are charged with duping
credit bureaus, along with card-issuing banks, as part of a sophisticated scheme
that exploited holes in the credit system with a factory-scale con that churned out 25,000 bogus credit cards in a scheme that crossed 28 states and at least eight countries.
Make up, pump up, run
The group was able to find unused Social Security numbers to make
up mostly fictitious identities. Then they pumped up the credit of the bogus
cardholders by creating false lines of credit with the help of a fraudulent
lender called "One Stop Credit Shop," according to the Justice
Department's criminal complaint. Other bogus companies -- 80 in all -- furnished false work histories for the made-up cardholders.
"The credit bureaus would unwittingly incorporate this
material into the false identity's credit report, making it appear that the
false identity had excellent credit," court papers said.
Scammers then monitored the bogus accounts' credit
reports. After credit card charges went
unpaid, some fraudulent identities even sought to have their good credit restored
by claiming that they were victims of identity theft, the federal complaint
Members of the ring then would run up the bills on the bogus
cards. They bought luxury cars, electronics and millions of dollars' worth of
gold with their gains, both from direct card purchases and money obtained from
cash advances, Reilly said. One of the defendants had $68,000 in cash stashed
in his oven when he was arrested.
"We'll go after what they took," Reilly said,
although some of the money has been wired out of the country and withdrawn in
cash. Babar Qureshi and Muhammad Shafiq were identified by authorities as the
alleged ringleaders. Reilly said that attorneys for the defendants had not yet
How could banks and credit bureaus be hoodwinked so thoroughly?
"I haven't heard of anything that extensive, where you
have all that in place," said Norman Magnuson, spokesman for the Consumer
Data Industry Association, which represents credit bureaus. The credit bureaus hit by the scam were not
identified in court papers, nor were card issuers, other than USAA and First
We believe it is one of the biggest [bank frauds] the
Department of Justice has ever uncovered.
|-- Matthew Reilly
New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office
"There are 220 million credit-active Americans," Magnuson
said. "Seven thousand (false identities) sounds like a lot, but you're
dealing with 4.5 billion updates to data a month."
The scheme went beyond typical cases of fraud and identity
theft, according to the federal complaint, and exploited the credit system with
a determined, long-term approach. For example, some false identities obtained
low-balance cards that were maintained and paid off, in order to boost their
credit score and qualify for more debt. Scammers also burnished the credit of
made-up identities by designating them as authorized users of false credit
Instead of blowing their loot, scammers invested heavily in
the scheme to keep it going, with the help of numerous conspirators who weren't
charged, federal prosecutors said. "[M]illions of dollars were spent on
sustaining the elaborate network of drop addresses and running credit reports
on the thousands of false entities," according to court papers.
Reilly wouldn't comment on how the ring was uncovered, but
the complaint indicates that the conspiracy started to unravel in 2011, when
investigators searched three jewelry stores. The stores, which had been conduits
for many sales to fraudulent customers, turned out to be participants in the
US cards less secure
Critics have decried relatively low security of U.S. card transactions for years. However, it is unclear
that more sophisticated cards with chip-and-PIN technology, such as those in
use in Europe, would have deterred the scheme, as the scam didn't rely on
stolen cards or identity theft.
"I question whether (chip-and-PIN) would stop this kind
of fraud," said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy at
the American Bankers Association.
Lenders are working with state governments to make driver's
licenses more secure, which would help block "synthetic identity"
frauds such as the New Jersey ring carried out, Johnson said.
However, Johnson added, such frauds are less common and more
difficult to carry out than identity theft, and they do not risk trashing bank
customers' credit and all the hassle that straightening out a case of identity
More difficult but, with proceeds of $200 million, are such
scams worth the trouble for copycats to duplicate? "Not," he said, "if you wind
Published: February 5, 2013
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