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Felony Lane Gang Steals Purses & Identities

A stolen purse case leads to a nationwide financial fraud crime ring

Episode art for Ep.64 Felony Lane Gang Steals Purses and Identitites

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When Kathy’s purse is stolen, she follows the standard protocol: informing the police and canceling all of her credit and debit cards. She thinks the theft is an isolated incident. But a month later while making a $21 purchase, her new debit card is declined. Later at home, she receives calls from multiple bank branches regarding checks she’s supposed to have deposited, but Kathy hasn’t deposited any checks. Kathy realizes she is a victim of fraud — but is shocked to learn the intricate scheme her stolen purse has pulled her into. 

Quote graphic illustration for episode 64 of The Perfect Scam

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(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] They'll make tens of thousands of dollars in a week, and it's free money, and to them, it's easy. So, and they know if an area's getting hot, they'll leave pretty quickly.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:17] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week, you know, it's an awful thing to have any crime happen to you, like your car broken into. That sinking feeling, the inconvenience, and feeling violated. Even worse to have your purse or wallet stolen as if someone took away a little piece of your life. But as we're about to see, for hundreds and hundreds of people targeted, that was just the tip of the iceberg in what turned out to be a vast, sophisticated ring involving costumes and impersonators spanning the entire US. One of the best parts though is talking to the relentless detective who would not rest until this case was cracked, even while she was 9 months pregnant. But first, let's say hello to another dogged crime fighter, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. And Frank, we want to hear about what you've been working on too. What's new in your world?

[00:01:13] Frank Abagnale: Well, thanks for having me, Michelle. Unfortunately the same old thing as scams and fraud, you know, I always tell people I'm always busy because if the economy's booming, then people don't pay a lot of attention like they normally would and fraud occurs. If we're in a recession and things are bad, then people do things they wouldn't normally do and they get a little desperate, and unfortunately there's always fraud. So I'm always busy. You know, having taught at the FBI Academy for so many years, I'm a big believer that education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime, whether I'm teaching FBI agents or law enforcement officers or bankers or consumers; if I tell them how the scam works, I explain to them how it works, I tell them what the red flags are, they're smart enough then to go out and uh do something to protect it. And I had the opportunity this past year to write a book on behalf of AARP called "Scam Me If You Can," where AARP asked me to look at all kinds of scams. Scams against the elderly, scams against millennials, scams in investment banking, bit coin, you name it, and that book has since been published and is out now, and again, it's a great reference book, it's also a great book to read so you educate yourself about these things, but then, if you get that call or you get an email and you say, you know, I think this might be a scam, you can actually use that book as a reference tool and go back and look that up. So education is, is very, very important.

[00:02:39] Michelle: And what scams should we be looking out for right now? Anything in particular that has peaked your interest?

[00:02:45] Frank Abagnale: Mostly what I think we're going to see in 2020 are these job fraud scams where crooks find potential victims using online search tools to look for resumes of job seekers. There'll be census scams where imposters could pretend to be census takers and get a lot of information from you, like Social Security numbers and credit card numbers.

[00:03:04] Michelle: Ah.

[00:03:05] Frank Abagnale: There'll be election scams where scammers send out fake ads as political action committees or pose as pollsters or campaign volunteers, or call you on the phone and ask you to give them a credit card number to donate some money which is not actually to the person running but to the scam artist. And then, of course, COVID-19 cons where you get an email offering a coronavirus vaccine or access to a critical medical equipment. Those are the things we'll be seeing a lot of in, unfortunately in 2020.

[00:03:36] Michelle: There's, there's never a shortage.

[00:03:38] Frank Abagnale: No.

[00:03:39] Michelle: Thanks so much, Frank.

[00:03:40] Frank Abagnale: Thank you.

[00:03:41] Michelle: So now to our scam. When what you might think is a simple old-fashioned neighborhood smash and grab, it's actually more like part of a nationwide crime corporation with hundreds of employees as well as uh unwilling customers.

[00:03:57] Yeah, let me tell you, you start thinking about the inventory of your purse, like what was in there, what was in there, what was in there.

[00:04:03] Michelle: Banking executive, Kathy Wade, lives in the quiet garden-lined suburbs of Washington DC where she had never experienced a break-in or a crime before.

[00:04:11] Kathy Wade: It was a Sunday and my husband and I went to the gym, and I left my purse in the car, and it was in the back seat like tucked under, not totally out of view, but you wouldn't easily see it. And when we came out of the gym the rear window on the passenger side had been broken, and my pocketbook was stolen. And the car that was parked directly next to me, her uh, driver's side window was smashed, and her purse was taken out of her car also.

[00:04:46] Michelle: Oh, so when you see this, what goes through your mind?

[00:04:50] Kathy Wade: So, you know, like there was panic, of course, there's a little level of panic, and we called the police and the police came. So I cancelled all my credit cards, my debit card, every single thing that was in my wallet. So that took me a couple of hours. My husband was cleaning out the glass in the car because that made a ginormous mess, so then that was pretty much the end of that.

[00:05:11] Michelle: So it's a pain, and you know, you worry about all the personal things we all keep in our cars and purses.

[00:05:17] Kathy Wade: Yeah, and, and you know, how are you going to survive without it? And so, as you know, I work for a bank and my job is that I'm in charge of several branches. At the time I had eight branches that I was in charge of and so I had the keys for eight branches in my purse.

[00:05:35] Michelle: Oh God.

[00:05:35] Kathy Wade: It was like a major pain in the butt. You can't get in the branch without the codes, you know, obviously they're all alarmed, but somebody had the keys to all these locations. One key had a little tag on it that said ATM.

[00:05:51] Michelle: They must have thought...jackpot!

[00:05:53] Kathy Wade: Yeah, right, like if only. But at any rate, so we canceled everything, and we moved on.

[00:06:00] Michelle: But of course, that is not nearly the end of it. The next day at work, missing her constant companion, her purse, Kathy is just trying to put her bad Sunday behind her when she gets a call from a woman she doesn't know who said she lives about 10 miles away. She tells Kathy that her son likes to dumpster dive, and that he had found her purse in the garbage behind a Target store.

[00:06:22] Michelle: Did that make you suspicious at all, like you thought, well maybe this is the culprit?

[00:06:27] Kathy Wade: No, it, it didn't. Because she was like, she was so kind and she, it was my, my prescription glasses and all the keys to the bank, and the only thing that was in the purse that identified me was my business cards. So my business cards were still in there, and some of the lady who was parked next to me, some of her things out of her purse were in there.

[00:06:52] Michelle: Wow.

[00:06:52] Kathy Wade: So she's like, your wallet is here, but it's empty. And so I got back my glasses, I got back my pocketbook, I got back my keys, I contacted the police and gave them the stuff that was in my purse that did not belong to me, that belonged to the other lady, but nothing of value. So then you think it's over, right. I got a new driver's license, I got all of my credit cards replaced, and we moved on.

[00:07:19] Michelle: But it's still not the end of it. One month later, Kathy and her husband are thrilled to be getting away on a cruise in the Caribbean.

[00:07:27] Kathy Wade: What I had done is I had put all the money that we could spend on the cruise, all our fun money, in an account at the bank, and we had our debit cards to use. And so, the first day on the cruise, we were at a port on Monday, and we tried to buy some linens, and it was $21, and his card got denied. And I was like, what could be wrong with his card? So I tried my card, and my card got denied.

[00:07:54] Michelle: Another annoying problem, just when Kathy's trying to relax and enjoy when she thought she had organized everything as securely as possible. So, back on the ship, she calls her husband's bank where they'd set up this account...

[00:08:07] Kathy Wade: The customer service person told me that my card wasn't working because I didn't have any available funds in my account, because I had cashed all these checks against my account. So I'm like, "I have not cashed any checks." And they're like, "Oh, no, no, you cashed a $900 check here and you cashed a," so he's giving me this list of checks that I've cashed, and I’m assuring him that I have not done that, and that it's fraud. I was on the phone with that bank for 1 hour...

[00:08:32] Michelle: On a call from a cruise ship that costs two bucks a minute.

[00:08:36] Kathy Wade: And they just kept telling me that I had cashed all these checks, and I told them, my husband works for this bank. My husband works here, he's a Vice President of this bank. We are not trying to rip you off, you know, like why would I do that? So they said they were going to fix it, but they didn't, and we ended up using a credit card the whole time that we were away.

[00:08:55] Michelle: You must have been worried. What do you think?

[00:08:58] Kathy Wade: Yeah, I was so mad, so it was very upsetting, but you, you know, like you're paying for this cruise too, so you’ve got to sort of like departmentalize and say, all right, we're not going to think about this, you know, you know Scarlett O'Hara,...

[00:09:09] Michelle: It'll all work out...

[00:09:10] Kathy Wade: I'll think about that tomorrow. But when we got home on Sunday, there were seven messages on our answering machine from six different branches of the bank to say that the check that I had cashed was returned "nonsufficient funds," and that I owed them all this money.

[00:09:25] Michelle: This requires more calls, more investigation, because both Kathy and her husband work at banks, everyone soon realizes this has been a fraud. But this is not any run of the mill scheme. These were not Kathy's own checks that someone had filled out and was trying to cash, these were someone else's checks that someone was trying to use while posing as Kathy with her ID.

[00:09:49] Kathy Wade: They told me that because these people had my driver's license, and they had seen my debit card, so they knew that I banked there; the debit card was worthless, but it gave them the information to take checks that they had stolen from somebody else, write them payable to me, and go to the bank and pass through my driver's license and these checks that were no good, and the bank, customer service, looked up my account number and held the funds in my account and gave them the cash. So they got about just a little less than $3000 out of the bank.

[00:10:24] Michelle: A very bold and creepy scam.

[00:10:27] Kathy Wade: They were going to the drive-thru and the person who was pretending to be me was in the passenger seat, passing through a driver's license, and the bank couldn't really ID them because, you know, they were, it's hard to see the, the passenger in a car when you're at the drive-thru.

[00:10:45] Michelle: So they were pretending to be you...

[00:10:48] Kathy Wade: Um-hm, yes, they were pretending to be...

[00:10:50] Michelle: Cashing the checks...

[00:10:51] Kathy Wade: Right. Right.

[00:10:52] Michelle: ...of somebody else which then causes more headaches for Kathy.

[00:10:55] Kathy Wade: But it still took us a while to get everything established. We had to do, you know, like when you change your bank account, you know, all your direct deposits had to be moved,

[00:11:02] Michelle: Right.

[00:11:02] Kathy Wade: All your, all your bill pay stuff had to be redone. All the ACHs, like for your insurance or anything you have set up like that, has to be contacted, and so that, you know, it was like starting all over again.

[00:11:15] Michelle: Now remember, these crooks still have her driver's license.

[00:11:18] Kathy Wade: That was very upsetting because then if they got pulled over, you know, and they gave out my driver's license there could be things against me that, that wasn't me. And then I had to go in and get a whole new driver's license.

[00:11:35] Michelle: She freezes her credit and thinks she's fixed the problem for good. But at the same time all this is going on, what Kathy doesn't know is that someone else is also furious about this scam, has already been on its trail for years. Someone who now understands the scope of it, that it goes way, way beyond Kathy Wade and her purse, her neighborhood, even her state.

[00:12:00] Crystal Lopez: So 2012, I was getting these theft from auto cases coming across my desk, and you'd get like five or six at a time in one location.

[00:12:09] Michelle: So to meet Detective Crystal Lopez with Maryland National Capitol Park Police, she looks like the cute, smiley, bubbly young woman with a nice haircut waiting behind you in line at the grocery store. You'd maybe never think at first glance, there is a relentless, tough investigator that will not let go of a tricky case. And that's probably one more reason she's so good at it.

[00:12:31] Crystal Lopez: So I'd call my victim, ask her "Where were your items used?" And then I'd get the, a copy of the check, and there'd be another person's name on the check. But that somebody else is also a victim. So, I'd use my um, law enforcement database, run her, and figure out that she was a victim in another county. So they like to make it as complicated as possible.

[00:12:57] Michelle: Det. Lopez starts talking to police in surrounding areas, and pieces start coming together. She finds out this is a crew with leaders who go out in the morning with women they've hired, often prostitutes, to be the check cashers. They go to multiple counties because they know this slows down the police when there are multiple jurisdictions involved. They break into cars all over the place, stealing women's purses. They keep the checks, driver's license, and bank cards, and everything else, they just toss away. Then they have these women they've hired go to banks disguised as the people whose licenses and bank cards they've stolen, and cash checks stolen from other victims. Exactly what happened in Kathy Wade's case.

[00:13:40] Crystal Lopez: So the female is going to pose as Victim B going through the drive-thru.

[00:13:45] Michelle: Oh, this is so interesting.

[00:13:47] Crystal Lopez: So they'll use wigs, they've used bronzer, they've used, you know, all kinds of props.

[00:13:53] Michelle: So when you caught wind of like how this was working, you must have just been like, man.

[00:13:58] Crystal Lopez: Right. It's, it's, when you think about it, it's almost simple, but it's very, very complicated. They've perfected their craft, absolutely.

[00:14:06] Michelle: And this, and this is way different than other smash and grab robberies that you saw.

[00:14:10] Crystal Lopez: It's very frustrating, and they also use two different banks; so Bank of America check, PNC credit card, they go to the PNC drive-thru and say, "Hey, I have an account here," and they say, "Yep, you have an account here. We'll cash this check for you." Well, Bank of America and PNC, it takes a week for that check to clear, so they don't talk to each other there either.

[00:14:33] Michelle: Within about a year, Lopez has identified hundreds of victims, all who simply left their purse in their car loosely hiding it under a seat or jacket just like we all have done.

[00:14:45] Crystal Lopez: And what makes it so awful about this type of case is, you know, if you get mugged on the street, you kind of see your attacker, you know exactly what he's going after, right. But with this type of case, and it terrified so many women as they're like, I was literally out of my car dropping my kid off at daycare. I was gone for less than two minutes, and my, all my stuff is gone. What do they want? Are they, they looking to break into my home?

[00:15:15] Michelle: Right.

[00:15:16] Crystal Lopez: They don't know who they're looking for. They don't know, so that kind of like on edge feeling for my victims, even though it is only a financial crime, made me want to work harder.

[00:15:28] Michelle: She spends years tracking these guys down, learning the complex hierarchy of what turns out to be a large gang with many tentacles spread all over America. It's known as the Felony Lane Gang, because they always use the same drive-thru lane at the banks, the one farthest from the building so they're harder to see while committing their crimes. And finally, after six years of trying to get to the leaders to cut off at least some of the many heads, Lopez gets not only arrests but convictions. More than a dozen of them in a federal case. There's even now an FBI taskforce dedicated to the Felony Lane Gang cases.

[00:16:08] Crystal Lopez: So, like now Indiana and Illinois and all these other bigger states are compiling their cases. One of my cases went all the way to Washington State.

[00:16:20] Michelle: So I'm dying to know, the people convicted, who are these people?

[00:16:24] Crystal Lopez: So, you have the upper management which tends to be these, you know, drug dealers or gang members out of Florida, and they've got a lot of like dealing drug history or assault charges, but they don't really have fraud charges because they're not the ones usually getting caught cashing the checks. So they have that buffer.

[00:16:49] Michelle: Are they young?

[00:16:50] Crystal Lopez: They're yeah, so they're in their like um, I would say mid-20s to mid-30s.

[00:16:55] Michelle: Do they have affiliation with like established gangs, like the traditional kinds of gangs?

[00:17:01] Crystal Lopez: Right, um, some of them I've found that they're connected to like the Blood gangs, so but they're different crews. So it's not like all one crew works together, they kind of like just kind of work together as like a, a group affiliation.

[00:17:18] Michelle: Any connection to cartels or anything bigger and scarier like that?

[00:17:22] Crystal Lopez: Well, because it's all cash, it's very difficult to track. I've had several suspects be connected to like drug kingpin activity. So when you think of cocaine and stuff coming out of Florida, it's almost always going back to Mexico.

[00:17:44] Michelle: Gosh, yeah.

[00:17:45] Crystal Lopez: So, because I don't know where most of the cash is going, because what they'll do is they won't dump it into their account. They'll dump it into a girlfriend's account, their sister's account. It's usually a whole family affair. 'Cause when you look at their property, no one owns a house in their name. It's, their mom owns three houses.

[00:18:05] Michelle: Oh, this is interesting.

[00:18:07] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, so they, they know the game. They know what they're doing.

[00:18:10] Michelle: It gives me the creeps.

[00:18:11] Crystal Lopez: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:12] Michelle: Okay, who do you think masterminded this? Does anybody know who the like, genius was that came up with this?

[00:18:19] Crystal Lopez: So, we have two different large cells, and one's in Texas and one is in Florida. And they all know each other, 'cause I've had them cross paths before. And it seems like this type of crime goes back to early 2000s, and they've just crafted it as the years go on. So what they do is they just keep, if somebody gets too old or somebody gets locked up too long, then they'll just bring another person in.

[00:18:51] Michelle: Just kind of from the criminal network?

[00:18:54] Crystal Lopez: Right, yep. They're common drug dealers or common gang members, or common neighborhood, 'cause why sit on a corner and swing dope all day...

[00:19:05] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:19:05] Crystal Lopez: When you can travel...

[00:19:07] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:19:08] Crystal Lopez: And...

[00:19:08] Michelle: See the world.

[00:19:09] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, and what they'll do is they'll launder the money at local casinos and...

[00:19:13] Michelle: Oh, this is interesting.

[00:19:14] Crystal Lopez: So, you know, they'll make tens of thousands of dollars in a week, and it's free money, and to them, it's easy. So, and they know if an area's getting hot, they'll leave pretty quickly. So, when it started in Maryland, they would stay here two, three weeks because they're near DC, you're near an area where people constantly travel, so you've got a lot of people coming and going, and that might not notice their things are missing right away.

[00:19:44] Michelle: They're looking for targets with money, of course. Ladies with bank accounts big enough so that the bank will cash that large check, no problem, because there's enough in there to back it up. At one point, these guys netted $100,000 in a month, just in Maryland.

[00:20:00] Michelle: How much money did these people take total? Or what are we talking here?

[00:20:05] Crystal Lopez: Well, well it's like in the millions. And like our indictment was around a million dollars. And that was taking the lower end of, of the losses.

[00:20:17] Michelle: And per victim, how much money were they taking out in checks would you say, average?

[00:20:23] Crystal Lopez: It usually depended how much they had in their account, but because they were stealing from affluent areas, sometimes they were getting, you know, 10, 15 thousand dollars at a time.

[00:20:32] Michelle: Yeah, they have all the victims' personal information, and you're right, what is the scariest is the addresses and all the information in our purses.

[00:20:41] Crystal Lopez: Right. And a lot of people keep spare keys in their car, you know, in their purse. So my victims were terrified. You know.

[00:20:48] Michelle: I would be.

[00:20:48] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, and I, I, I understood. I was like, I totally get it, and that's the big push that we did as investigators, too, is to get financial crime kind of in the spotlight. Yes, these people are victims, and yes, it does terrify them, because for the longest time, financial crime was just considered a victimless crime.

[00:21:10] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:21:10] Crystal Lopez: Because oh, they get their money back, it's no big deal, but I'm like, no, these people are terrified. You know, and I totally get it.

[00:21:18] Michelle: The local moms and businesswomen are targeted in their own neighborhoods, just doing their errands like always, never feeling anything is amiss.

[00:21:26] Crystal Lopez: These guys will sit in a parking lot, sometimes for hours and wait for people to, especially females, walk out of their car with no, no bag. And then they'll go and look in your car and they do it during the day, during crowded situations. I've had females that ran into a daycare, less than two minutes, and I'm like, I've watched them on camera; it takes them three seconds to break the window and grab the purse, and they're gone. And you know, they'll, they'll target gyms and parks, and like, you know, any place where you would leave your bag that you don't really want to carry it. You know, those are their favorite fishing spots.

[00:22:05] Michelle: A simple crime with a sprawling, complex criminal network behind it.

[00:22:10] Michelle: How many perpetrators do you think are connected to this across the country?

[00:22:16] Crystal Lopez: Oh, I had 14 that I charged, but I had almost 30 that I wanted to charge. And then there's hundreds, because you have the main people involved, and then you have their families, because they're hiding money for them, and they know what's going on.

[00:22:38] Michelle: So interesting. Um, are you still seeing cases in this area?

[00:22:43] Crystal Lopez: Not so much in Maryland, knock on wood.

[00:22:46] Michelle: You busted them, girl!

[00:22:47] Crystal Lopez: I know, I know.

[00:22:48] Michelle: You took them down.

[00:22:50] Crystal Lopez: So, um, every time I went into an interview, I would be like, if you don't want your friends to be charged federally, stay out of Maryland. Or just stay out, you know, out of my jurisdiction.

[00:23:04] Michelle: So you warned them, too.

[00:23:05] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, so I'm like just, I'm going to keep coming for you. And I think right now Virginia and Pennsylvania's getting hit pretty hard.

[00:23:14] Michelle: Do they feel any guilt over this when you talk to the perpetrators directly?

[00:23:19] Crystal Lopez: Oh no. They always act like, oh, I didn't know, or this was my first time. I'm like, uh-huh.

[00:23:24] Michelle: It must be so satisfying to clear at least an area out of this kind of crime.

[00:23:30] Crystal Lopez: It is. It is, but because it's ever evolving, I know they'll be back. I just have to, be like stay on top of it.

[00:23:37] Michelle: I love how you do this behind the scenes. I mean if I saw you in the grocery store and I was behind you, I would just never think like, this woman's a badass,

[00:23:46] Crystal Lopez: Thank you.

[00:23:46] Michelle: And she busted up a whole crime ring, and maybe saved me from getting all my information stolen.

[00:23:52] Crystal Lopez: Yeah.

[00:23:53] Michelle: So I commend you.

[00:23:54] Crystal Lopez: Thank you, I appreciate it.

[00:23:54] Michelle: You're amazing.

[00:23:55] Crystal Lopez: Thank you. I, it's, not to toot my own horn, but I did this when with a complicated pregnancy. I was very, very pregnant during a good portion of the investigation.

[00:24:05] Michelle: This is like a movie.

[00:24:05] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, it's pretty cool, right? And then, you know, I had an infant for a year, so I had no sleep, I was breastfeeding the infant and going to court and stuff in Baltimore, 'cause all this was the hub in Baltimore.

[00:24:19] Michelle: I can't even imagine.

[00:24:19] Crystal Lopez: So,

[00:24:21] Michelle: So you’re like 9 months pregnant, you're like listen creep,

[00:24:23] Crystal Lopez: Right.

[00:24:23]: Michelle: I don't want to see you on my territory again.

[00:24:26] Crystal Lopez: Exactly.

[00:24:26] Michelle: It's just like busting bad guys left and right.

[00:24:28] Crystal Lopez: Yeah.

[00:24:29] Michelle: With like an infant.

[00:24:30] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, like infant on my hip.

[00:24:31] Michelle: In a sling.

[00:24:33] Crystal Lopez: (giggle) My breast pump in the back seat.

[00:24:35] Michelle: Listen you.

[00:24:36] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, don't, don't do this every again. Because, you know, when you went and interview them, they always try to play the, I don't know what you're talking about, and then when you start naming people, they're like, oh, you know what you're talking about. That's how you get the information. But it, you know, I was driving to Philadelphia to get evidence; I'm like 9 months pregnant. That was a fun car ride.

[00:24:59] Michelle: An incredibly complicated, multi-state beast of a case that was cracked bit by bit with video evidence and painstakingly interview by interview, getting the lower level bad actors to talk.

[00:25:13] Crystal Lopez: The females are usually like prostitutes or drug addicts, or both. And that's how they kind of control them. And they're being brought up from Florida with the, you know, you get to travel, you get to, you know, have fun. And you're my girlfriend, or I'll feed you drugs, so you don't have to work the street to supply your habit.

[00:25:35] Michelle: To leave Florida, see beautiful Baltimore, Maryland.

[00:25:38] Crystal Lopez: Right. Exactly.

[00:25:39] Michelle: Did you do any sting operations? Like with a purse in a car?

[00:25:43] Crystal Lopez: So we tried um, Montgomery County Police has this awesome setup, and we tried a bait car.

[00:25:49] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:25:50] Crystal Lopez: With items in it; never took the bait.

[00:25:52] Michelle: Yeah, same here. I, I did ride-alongs in my local news days, and we tried to get people to steal a car. We could not get people to steal that car to save our lives. We left it running...

[00:26:03] Crystal Lopez: Yeah. They know.

[00:26:03] Michelle: With the keys in the ignition. Nobody, nobody around that car, and nobody would touch that car.

[00:26:08] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, they're like no, I know what that is.

[00:26:10] Michelle: How, how do they know?

[00:26:10] Crystal Lopez: They just, it's just, they've been in that criminal element for so long, they're like, that's a setup. You know, same way they can spot a cop a mile away, you know, it's, it's, it's funny, 'cause they're like, no, I'm not falling for that. Good try.

[00:26:24] Michelle: Was this one of your toughest cases?

[00:26:25] Crystal Lopez: It was. It was, 'cause it was just so complex, and it was, there were so many moving parts. And once you figured out you have to do it the old school way, the calls and stuff like that, and then you had to do it kind of like the new school way where you're checking social media, you're checking traffic stops and stuff like that, it connects. Well it's like a huge web.

[00:26:46] Michelle: Yeah, you must have been like, wow, these, you're good.

[00:26:48] Crystal Lopez: Yeah.

[00:26:48] Michelle: Like respect.

[00:26:49] Crystal Lopez: Yeah, yeah, it's like, it's like, I'd give it to them if it was a sport, they'd get, you know the gold medal, you know. It, they are smart.

[00:26:58] Michelle: Well, congratulations, 'cause you were smarter.

[00:27:00] Crystal Lopez: Thank you.

[00:27:01] Michelle: Cleaning up the streets.

[00:27:02] Crystal Lopez: Yep.

[00:27:06] Kathy Wade: Years later, it still affects my life.

[00:27:08] Michelle: And I guess we all do this little trick where you hide your purse, and you think you're, you think you're being good hiding it. Like I'll be smart, I'll, I'll make sure nobody can see it.

[00:27:18] Kathy Wade: I mean like let me just tell you, I've done it a million times, you know, like just throw it under the, you know, partly under the backseat, you know, in the back part of the car under the seat somewhat. Um, I had done it hundreds of times, hundreds of times.

[00:27:31] Michelle: Right.

[00:27:32] Kathy Wade: I, let me just say I haven't done it since then.

[00:27:34] Michelle: (chuckle) And when people started getting arrested, Kathy actually got her old driver's license back.

[00:27:40] Kathy Wade: Among all the other millions of driver's licenses that they had, mine was there.

[00:27:45] Michelle: You must have felt like, ah... they got them.

[00:27:48] Kathy Wade: Yeah, I was. I was very happy about that.

[00:27:51] Michelle: Would you ever have thought that this was such a sophisticated scam?

[00:27:56] Kathy Wade: No. No, you think, you know, people in your area...

[00:28:01] Michelle: Those convictions were satisfying to Kathy, especially since even in her own bank, she's at times had to help bust cases of check fraud that she's witnessed.

[00:28:11] Kathy Wade: I've called my customer and said, "Did you write this check to this person?" And they say, "No." And in two separate incidences, people have sat in the branch when I gave them some lame excuse about what I was doing and why I was taking so long until the police arrived. And, in one particular case, I was then called to testify, and this kid, he was like, I don't know, he was like 18 or 19, he, he had learning disabilities, and he wasn't, he, he really didn't even understand that he was doing anything wrong. Because these people had approached him and told him, "Listen, we'll pay you $200 to cash this thousand dollar check, and it was made payable to you, and so you're not doing anything wrong," and he believed them.

[00:28:56] Michelle: Oh wow.

[00:28:57] Kathy Wade: So sometimes, even the people that are doing the crime don't fully understand what they're doing.

[00:29:04] Michelle: You know, getting your purse stolen, it, it is an inconvenience and it is only property, but in a sense, it's more than that, right?

[00:29:13] Kathy Wade: Yes, it's such a violation of you personally because it's, it's, I mean, let's face it, we're taking this stuff everywhere we go.

[00:29:21] Michelle: Sometimes, just a regular neighborhood break-in can be connected to a much larger underworld, and remember, it's still murky, exactly what all that money stolen, millions of dollars, is funding. Let's talk to Frank Abagnale again about this.

[00:29:37] Michelle: So, Frank, this turned out to be something much more elaborate.

[00:29:40] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. And you know, this reminds me of so many uh scams that I've seen uh during my 44-year career. Uh, for example, people think of their deposit slip as a worthless piece of paper. Sometimes they write grocery lists on the back of them and then leave it in the grocery cart. What people don't understand is if I have your deposit slip, that's just even better than if you gave me your check, because your deposit slip has your name and address on it, it has your bank's name and address on it, it has your account number on it, so I can take a check that I've stolen, make it out to you, fill out the deposit slip with the date, the amount of the check, say $1000, when I pull up to the drive-in, the teller assumes I'm a customer of the bank 'cause I'm depositing money into my account, I have the deposit slip, and now I'm just asking for $200 back from the deposit. Uh, that scam goes on all the time. The things I always remind people about check scams and check forgery's coming back, it's a crime that kind of went away for a while, but it's making its way back now, uh big time, is I remind people...

[00:30:49] Michelle: Really?

[00:30:50] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, absolutely, both business and consumer. So I remind people...

[00:30:54] Michelle: Why is that would you say?

[00:30:55] Frank Abagnale: Well one, it's the, there's always going to be criminals that are not sophisticated enough to understand computers and hacking and how to get into systems, so they always fall back on the old proven crimes like altering checks, forging checks, and washing checks, and things like that. There are a lot of companies that, that still write a lot of checks. We have 39 billion checks that go through the system every year, and though we've seen a decline in personal checks over the last 10 years, uh, we've uh seen an increase in business to business checks, because companies are getting a little leery about wiring money, uh they know that if they write a check they can stop payment on the check, they can track the check, the person who gets the check has to go to the bank and actually identify themselves to cash the check. So some companies have started resorting back to checks rather than wire money or using automated clearing houses, or what we refer to as ACH payments. So checks have made somewhat of a comeback, but what I remind people about your personal checking account is a very simple thing to remember. The law says you have 30 days from receipt of your bank statement to notify the bank of any discrepancy. If you notify the bank within those 30 days, you have no liability for any forged checks. The problem is that many people don't reconcile their bank account anymore. They don't even open the envelope from the bank, because they say to themselves, well, you know, I have $10,000 in that checking account, I deposit 2500 a month in there, I only write about $1500 in checks. I don't need to check it. So then, maybe four months later, the bank tells them they're overdrawn, and they go, no, that's impossible, I should have this in my account. So then they go back and open the envelopes and they find that four months earlier a forged check had gone through their account made out to someone else that they didn't write. And that's too late to get and recover your money from the bank. So the key there is to remember that you should reconcile. That is very important.

[00:32:54] Michelle: And we should mention that the AARP Bulletin has a new article on the industry of fraud. And this was one of those cases where it could have been just, you know, a couple of criminals in your neighborhood doing this, not anything on a huge scale, but of course, it turned out to be this very sophisticated network of criminals that spanned the entire United States and hundreds upon hundreds of victims just in this one area. So, it looks like a simple crime, but it's really part of a much larger enterprise, and that's what happens in some of these cases, isn't it, Frank?

[00:33:33] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely, because they're, these enterprises which are usually controlled by a very small group of people who obviously would never want to put themselves in a position to be walking in a bank and cashing a check, going up to an ATM machine and using a stolen debit card or a debit card that's been compromised, so they use mules. They get other people, whether they're people on the street or a homeless, sometimes they're people who just uh looking for money, and they tell these people for them to go in and cash the checks, and that they will give them a percentage of every check they cash. So they get 10% or they may dub credit cards or debit cards, and they want them to go to ATM machines and get the money out of the machine; they send those mules, or those individuals, out to do that job so that if they get caught, they don't even know who had hired them to do that, and it never gets back to the ringleaders who are really organizing all of those things.

[00:34:28] Michelle: Exactly. All right, well thanks so much, Frank.

[00:34:31] Frank Abagnale: Thank you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:34:34] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can help you know what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.

 

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AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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