How credit cards can lead law officers to criminals

'Digital breadcrumbs' used to trace fugitives also raise privacy concerns

John Egan
Personal Finance Writer
Writes trendy stories about credit cards.

How credit cards track criminals

Credit cards often are as much of an investigative tool as fingerprints in tracking down criminals. In effect, credit cards leave digital fingerprints that help law officers to track down suspects and solve crimes. 

Credit card records, though, often obtained through a subpoena and used by investigators, do raise privacy issues. 

How cards led to an accused killer’s arrest

Take the case of murder suspect Lois Riess, a casino-hopping grandma nicknamed “Losing Streak Lois.” In April 2018, cops around the country were hunting for Riess, who was charged with shooting and killing her husband in Minnesota. 

Riess also stands accused in the shooting death of 59-year-old lookalike Pamela Hutchinson in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. After the Florida slaying, Riess took off with Hutchinson’s driver’s license and 2005 Acura TL, along with the Hutchinson’s credit cards, authorities say. 

In the Lois Reiss case (and in so many others like it), investigators were able to pin down her whereabouts after she used one of Hutchinson’s credit cards to pay for a room at a hotel in Ocala, Florida. Riess later was nabbed at a restaurant on South Padre Island in Texas. 

Law officers mum on cards to trace criminals

Precisely how cops like the ones in the Riess investigation lean on credit card information isn’t something law enforcement agencies want to talk about. Numerous attempts to garner insights from police departments and sheriff’s offices across the country were unsuccessful.

That isn’t so mysterious, though, as investigators hesitate to divulge any of their tactics to the public, especially criminals. 

“We like to keep a leg up on the bad guys,” one police spokesman says. 

However, other insiders – namely cops-turned-private investigators who are knowledgeable about criminal probes – offer plenty of clues about how credit cards are used as an investigative tool in cases involving everything from fraud to first-degree murder. 

"When you're paying for something, you're leaving a trail, you're leaving tracks."

PI says credit card activity is a vital tool

Private detective Dan Skoczylas, who was a police officer for 24 years in the Chicago suburb of Hickory Hills, Illinois, says he and other police investigators frequently relied on credit card information to gather evidence in an array of cases, such as money laundering, drug smuggling, gang activity and murder. 

Credit cards are “a great way to find where people have been or what their patterns are,” Skoczylas says. 

In criminal cases in which a credit card is stolen, the suspect often is located – to some extent – by tracking the card, Skoczylas says. 

For example, Skoczylas says the family of a missing person might hand over credit card records to help find their loved one. Or after a home burglary, cops can monitor purchases made with stolen credit cards. 

If the credit card of a missing person or burglary victim is used at a retailer, there might be security cameras that caught the criminal in the act.

At crime scenes, there’s usually some evidence, such as bills, that provides insights into a victim’s or suspect’s credit card history, according to Skoczylas. 

“Somebody may commit a murder and grab a purse on the way out the door and start using the card, but they’re not going to take the time to go through the individual’s home and destroy the paper trail that exists there, like credit card statements,” he says. 

See related: Can police really trace a phone call in 60 (but not 59) seconds?

Subpoenas can get needed card information

What if a criminal suspect uses a stolen credit card to buy, say, a $1,200 camera from an online store such as Amazon? 

While the investigative trail is rockier when it comes to online purchases versus in-store purchases, online card activity still is a vital tool for investigators. 

Once investigators present a subpoena, they can collect purchase information from an online retailer such as Amazon, locate the IP address of the computer the “bad guy” used to make the purchase and then track down the suspect, Skoczylas says. 

With a subpoena in hand, criminal investigators find that credit card companies are “pretty cooperative” in complying with requests for data, such as lists of recent credit card transactions, Skoczylas says.  

Following the money … or the credit cards

Cyber detective Rob Holmes, who conducts intellectual property investigations on behalf of well-known brands like Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vitton, Microsoft, Sony and Tiffany, says subpoenas also can be used to unlock credit card information in cases involving counterfeit goods – and other crimes that don’t physically harm people. 

When it comes to counterfeiting, an investigator can eventually nail a crook by collecting credit card data from a domain registration company or web service provider tied to an online shop that’s selling fake merchandise. 

While much of the information supplied when a domain or web account is established might be phony, the credit card information characteristically is real, Holmes says. 

“So, what happens is, more times than not, following the money is the only way to catch the criminal,” he says. 

"More times than not, following the money is the only way to catch the criminal."

Subpoenas, card info and privacy concerns

Florida defense attorney Andrew Metcalf frets that your privacy is being compromised by federal investigators who are armed with your credit card information. 

The Hotwatch federal program enables real-time tracking of criminal suspects via avenues such as credit card companies and rental car agencies, according to Metcalf, who’s president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Through Hotwatch, federal investigators can obtain records through administrative subpoenas – issued by a government agency without permission from a judge. 

What this means: Hotwatch lets investigators get financial records without a search warrant, which would require approval of a judge or a subpoena from a grand jury. 

Metcalf complains that Hotwatch flies in the face of the federal Right to Privacy Act, which prohibits unlawful searches and seizures associated with financial records. 

“There is nothing to rein in abusive behavior, but the general public doesn’t seem very upset to hear that our government spies on its citizens nowadays.” Metcalf says. “It has become a part of American life, it seems.” 

The U.S. Justice Department has routinely not commented on Hotwatch. However, a Justice Department presentation unearthed in 2010 detailed how the credit card surveillance program works.

A 2015 article published in an American Bar Association newsletter questioned the validity of Hotwatch orders. 

“The danger with blindly complying with Hotwatch orders is that they have questionable legal authority, and compliance may set a dangerous precedent for more frequent abuse of law enforcement tools to easily obtain private financial information,” the authors, attorneys Craig Denney and Carrie Parker, concluded.

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, two groups that typically oppose digital snooping, say they’re unaware of whether Hotwatch remains active.

Metcalf underscores the debate over the sought-after credit card information and the right to privacy.

“While I am sure law enforcement sees these records as an essential tool in their hunt for the location and financial dealings of suspects, it is a chilling thought that there is no judicial oversight,” Metcalf says. 

See related: 12 creepy details data collectors know about you

Credit cards as ‘digital breadcrumbs’

It’s worth keeping in mind that credit cards leave a trail. They’re digital breadcrumbs left at a virtual crime scene, Holmes says. 

“When you think of a crime scene, a physical crime scene, there’s a murder, and then you have a drop of blood here, you have a thumbprint here, you have a matchbook dropped,” he says. “One of those items is going to be that breadcrumb that leads you to the next step.” 

Those same breadcrumbs are present at virtual crime scenes. Holmes attributes the resolution of about 10 percent of his cases to credit card information. 

“When there’s money involved, there are always breadcrumbs,” he says. “When you’re paying for something, you’re leaving a trail, you’re leaving tracks.”

 


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Updated: 12-10-2018