True tales of card fraud victims who fought back
Here are a few people who experienced card fraud and went beyond basic protocol
Consumer finance expert, author and “Opening Credits” columnist.
When someone steals your credit or debit card, the odds are slim of ever finding the thief, much less getting that person prosecuted or even apprehended. There are some card theft victims, however, who refuse to let the crook off the hook.
Once discovered, reporting and removing fraudulent accounts and charges involves time-consuming activities, including contacting the Federal Trade Commission, police and credit reporting agencies.
However, rarely do these actions result in the criminal being caught and prosecuted, says Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. This can leave victims feeling as if their theft cases are being ignored. For this reason, some card theft victims shift into battle mode.
“When people step forward, it helps,” says Rob Douglas, editor of IdentityTheft.info. “The victim says, ‘I won’t be just a statistic,’: and then goes the extra mile to help authorities identify and prosecute the culprit.
Here are a few people who experienced card fraud and went beyond basic protocol. Although the outcomes were not exactly what they hoped for, none regrets their attempt at vengeance.
Tracked down the perps – and turned it into a book
Greg Scott, from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesotra, is an internet security professional. When his credit cards were stolen in 2011, his background in investigation came in handy.
“At that time, I was an independent contractor and would buy equipment for customers,” says Scott. “I went to buy some, and my card was denied.”
The account was with U.S. Bank, which he called immediately. “The woman in the fraud department was named Kim, and she was perfect,” says Scott. “Together we tracked down every single transaction. Those charges were removed. But after that I said, ‘Kim, I do this for a living. Let’s nail some bad guys.’”
With Kim’s help, they followed the thieves’ trail to specific locations. “They made fake credit cards and used them at brick-and-mortar stores,” says Scott. “We chased them down. We talked to store clerks and they remembered what the guy looked like.”
Eventually, the pair identified over $14,000 in attempted card fraud charges. Scott took extensive notes, gathered data, packed it up and gave everything to the FBI.
Were the offenders caught and sentenced to a lengthy prison stay? Well, no. “The FBI said thanks, but nobody did anything and it all disappeared into a black hole,” says Scott.
While the bust was a bust, Scott says he is glad he rounded up all the information on his credit card thief. Scott turned the experience into a successful endeavor. “I wrote ‘Bullseye Breach,’ an internet security book disguised as a novel about how Russian mobsters stole 40 million customer credit card numbers from a fictional retailer. What happened to me played a role, especially in the main character’s attitude with the FBI.”
Like Scott, victims may gain in unexpected ways. Besides, in aggregate, complaints count.
“Call law enforcement because you need the report for your credibility with the banks, but don’t expect cops to lift a finger just for you,” Scott says. “If one person calls, who cares? The police won’t. But 100 or 1,000 calls about the same crime? That gets their attention.”
Case in point: In 2017, Lisa Reid was arrested for using at least 50 senior citizens’ credit card accounts, charging at least $1 million worth of merchandise. She’s facing a mandatory consecutive prison term of two years.
Publicly berated an account-stealing cafe worker
As a UCLA student who depends on student loans and a part-time job to make ends meet, Angie Lee is careful with her money. But in September 2017, she splurged on a $4 coffee drink. The payment process seemed ordinary, even though the woman at the drive-thru window was slow in handing back her card.
That same afternoon, Lee received a message from her credit card company, alerting her of suspicious account activity. Someone had made nearly $1,000 in online charges, maxing the account out, before attempting to use it again.
“That was the first time I used that card in months, so suddenly there’s a problem? It didn’t make sense to me.” says Lee. “My mind went to that lady right away. I just thought it had to be her, right, so I got in my car and drove back over there.”
Lee admits that what she did next might have been reckless. A person bold enough to blatantly steal card numbers can be capable of other, more dangerous crimes.
“I was shaking, but I parked and walked in and saw her and I said, ‘Hey, you! You took my credit card! You bought stuff with my card! You are a thief!’ She said, ‘No, I didn’t do anything, you’re crazy,’ but she was not acting right. She was very nervous.”
The on-duty manager arrived and escorted them into the back room and away from alarmed customers, where Lee explained what happened. Initially, the worker denied any wrongdoing, but Lee asked if the cafe had security cameras, and the manager said yes. A confession ensued.
“She started crying and saying her boyfriend made her do it and she didn’t make any of the charges, he did,” says Lee.
Although Lee said she felt sorry for the woman, she called the police and demanded action. An officer arrived and took the report. The woman was not arrested, but had to appear in court.
“It was still wrong of her,” says Lee. “Besides, maybe it was a lie.”
Lee says she’s proud of herself for the face-to-face fracas. “I wouldn’t tell people to do it or not do it, but yes, I’m glad I did. You can say it made me feel strong,” she says.
In fact, other card fraud victims have had similar encounters with cafe workers, and even recorded their confrontations, such as an incident in Lakewood, California, where a young mom would not accept the thief’s weak apology.
Velasquez, however, advises to not take matters into your own hands in this way. It’s far too risky. “The thief’s boyfriend could have been there, and he absolutely could have been dangerous,” she says.
Crawled out of a taxi and will travel to the trial
As CEO of Czardom, a large public relations group, Jennifer Demarchi is a savvy traveler, but she never expected to be robbed of her card by a taxi driver – and be threatened and assaulted in the process.
After landing at Los Angeles International Airport in October 2017, Demarchi took a cab to her hotel. She tried to pay with her debit card, but the machine didn’t work. “I swiped it four times, but it wouldn’t register,” says Demarchi. “Then he locked the doors and grabbed my bag.”
Terrified, Demarchi crawled out of the open car window and ran into the hotel. Although her intention was to pay the fare, protecting herself from harm was her primary priority. The driver followed her into the lobby and law enforcement was called.
Mysteriously, the sheriff was able to get the card reader to work. Names were exchanged, and the driver was released.
Then the fraudulent charges started to appear.
“An hour later, I got a charge for $2,300 for Sprint in Kansas,” says Demarchi. “I have no Sprint account, so I called the sheriff again and they came out and found him.”
It turns out that the driver had multiple card readers, and with at least one he was able to lift her account numbers.
Demarchi had the sheriff take a screenshot of the fraudulent transactions that appeared on her online banking statement.
“I have a case number and they are prosecuting,” she says. “He drained my checking account! I told the sheriff I’d fly back to testify, and I will. I felt violated.
“They tried to dissuade me, but absolutely not. He knows I’m after him. I want him to go to jail. I want him to lose everything. He should be prosecuted. I live in New Jersey, but I will go back to California and testify.”
Demarchi’s recommendation for others in similar situation is to be assertive. “I would suggest people fight,” she says. “I believe in justice. Everyone should pursue convictions.”
Stormed the motel that the thief booked with his card
Crooks would be wise to avoid targeting San Francisco resident Brian Hill. He’s involved in his neighborhood watch program and helps preserve the peace as a member of Castro Community on Patrol. When his credit cards were stolen from his garaged car in 2013, he was prepared for action.
Inside the car, the thieves had found a spare, hidden wallet that contained three credit cards, a California ID and an insurance card with Hill’s Social Security number. Soon they charged on the account that didn’t require a PIN, and opened a mailbox to have Hill’s mail rerouted. Then they applied for new accounts in his name.
Rather than shut down the compromised card, Hill deliberately left it open. He monitored the transactions, eventually tracing them to a motel in a seedy part of San Francisco.
Then he showed up.
“I asked the front desk if I was checked in, which is a really weird question, but they didn’t react,” says Hill. “They said, ‘Yes, you have two rooms for two nights.’ At that point I thought, ‘OK, now it’s time to call the police.’”
“I was going to go in by myself, and they stopped me,” says Hill. “So we all went. One room was empty, but in the other, a guy was trying to escape and they arrested him. Inside they found a stolen laptop and my card that they cloned, stamped with his name. He used it at a motorcycle shop to buy a $300 jacket. The other cards from my car were there, too.”
That evidence led to the man being charged with six felonies and multiple misdemeanors. Hill attended nearly all the court hearings and begged prosecutors and the judge not go lightly with sentencing.
“I had a thick folder of conversations with credit card companies, disputing false cards and charges,” says Hill. “Fixing the damage took dozens of hours. He opened accounts everywhere, bought tires, spent at bike shops. I dropped it on the table and said, ‘I want him to go away for three years. Remember I vote.’”
In the end, the criminal spent about nine months in county jail. “It’s not a win, but it is something,” says Hill.
“I would encourage people to do it, to go further than you have to. Follow the trail. Act quickly. You might come up with something,” says Hill.. “These guys were hoods, not the mafia. If more people do what I did, there would be fewer of them.”
Douglas has nothing but admiration for victims who go beyond the recommended credit protection procedures.
“It’s those people and their stories that motivate law enforcement officials and legislative bodies to take a closer look at these issues,” he says. “It often does lead to significant arrests and can cause us to explore better methodologies, laws and techniques. These stories often shock us enough to do more. It personalizes it.”
Never put yourself in danger, though, urges Velasquez. Conduct the research and legwork to help an investigation, but do not confront crooks.
“You have no idea what you’re walking into,” says Velasquez. “They could be armed; they could be felons.” Remember, no fraudulent credit card charge is worth more than your life.
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