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A month after being nabbed in the sting, while awaiting trial at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Jackson met scruffy, overweight Abraham Abdallah. Abdallah was also a career identity thief, in and out of jails since his teenage years. And, like Jackson, Abdallah had slowly escalated from simple frauds to far more serious identity thefts involving America’s rich and famous. The two spoke only a few times; Abdallah was also awaiting his day in court. Their conversations were shallow and chatty. Abdallah, like most Americans, had never heard of Jackson, and had no idea who he was. He knew nothing about the diamonds, nothing about Steven Spielberg, nothing about all those CEOs in Jackson’s closet. The two didn’t talk shop.But Jackson certainly knew of Abdallah. Much of the world did, at least for a few days in March 2001. Overnight, Abdallah had become a global celebrity by boldly impersonating global celebrities. His was a billion-dollar crime—in fact, tens of billions of dollars were at stake.
When his takedown finally happened, it came with all the trappings of a Mafioso roundup, complete with a New York City cop dangling out the sunroof of the getaway car. When two investigators managed to subdue Abraham Abdallah and stop the car he was in, they put an end to potentially one of the biggest-ticket crimes in New York City history. But this was no mob takedown. Detective James Doyle remembers it more like a Keystone Cop routine. When a detective spotted Abdallah at the sting scene at the Brooklyn waterfront, Abdallah ran back to his 2000 Volvo jumped inside and simply locked the doors. There was no place to drive, all the exits had been cut off.
Detective Michael Fabozzi noticed the sunroof was open and leapt into the car. While Fabozzi, upside down, tried to handcuff Abdallah, the identity thief tried to squirm under the dashboard. Doyle, who joined Fabozzi in the sunroof, tried to help subdue Abdallah by pounding on him with an empty plastic Pepsi bottle—the only thing he could find nearby. In moments, Abdallah went from being the world’s richest man, 200 times over, to being a suspect in handcuffs clinging to a dashboard with all his might, as if he could cling to being Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen for just a few more moments.
Abdallah was a high school dropout, a New York City busboy, a pudgy, disheveled, career petty criminal. Almost 20 years earlier, he had been arrested for simple credit card fraud. He even made a video at the time, called “Crime of the 20th Century,” with the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office, in exchange for a reduced sentence. The video is still used as a training tool in some financial companies.
But now, Abdallah was on the front page of the New York Post. He had committed the crime of the twenty-first century. The only evidence prosecutors needed was the dog-eared copy of Forbes magazine that was sitting on the passenger seat of Abdallah’s Volvo. It was the special “Forbes 400” issue, splattered with pictures of the usual suspects—Warren Buffet, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. But the pages were jammed with scribbled notes: checking account numbers, cell phone numbers, brokerage accounts, balances, and everywhere, names and phone numbers of key financial advisers Abdallah had tracked down.
That year, 2001, Bill Gates was at the top of the Forbes list. Gates escaped unscathed, but only because Abdallah had chosen not to go after him—too well known, according to the New York Post’s Murray Weiss. But after passing on No.1, the rest of the list was up for grabs. Abdallah scored with more than 200 other celebrities on the list, working his way from Buffet and Oprah to Martha Stewart and Larry Ellison. Using a cell phone, some voice mailboxes, and free e-mail accounts, he had fasttalked his way through receptionists and security questions for six months. Eventually, he had access to billions of dollars.
It all unraveled when Abdallah got very greedy very quickly. He asked Merrill Lynch to move $10 million from software magnate Thomas Siebel’s account to a new account in Australia, and that set off alarm bells. “Operation CEO” began in earnest. Digging behind that transaction, Detective Fabozzi eventually found an elaborate net of e-mail addresses, voice mails, and P.O. boxes purchased in the name of the world’s richest people. Fabozzi arranged a sting, not much different from the FBI’s controlled delivery to Jackson. As is often the case, this whitecollar criminal playing in the make-believe world of bits and bytes was caught when he was forced to step out into the world of reality, just for an instant.
At the end of a package
Authorities almost always catch cyber criminals at the end of a package. On February 23, 2001—only 48 hours before James Rinaldo Jackson stepped into a Holiday Inn in Cordova, Tennessee, and walked out into the waiting arms of FBI agents—Abdallah was in Brooklyn awaiting delivery of $25,000 worth of equipment used to magnetize and manufacture bogus credit cards. As usual, the delivery was to be made in stages, in an effort to obscure his trail. The package was to be shipped via UPS to a bogus Bronx location, then picked up by a courier service and delivered to an auto shop near Brooklyn’s waterfront. There, Abdallah figured he could pick up the package in safety. But police intercepted the initial UPS delivery.
Detective Jamal Daise then took the wheel of the courier service van and headed for Brooklyn. Detective Doyle didn’t want Daise driving alone, so he climbed into the back of the truck. Delivery vans almost never come with two employees. As luck would have it, the minivan was full of windows, so Doyle had to hide. He jumped into a garbage bag and ducked down in the back. He sweated all the way from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The plan was simple. When Daise said “Have a nice day” to whomever accepted the package, Doyle would pop out of the bag and help cuff the suspect. A few minutes later, the van arrived at the auto shop, and Daise was met by a mechanic. He was quickly cuffed—and even as the mechanic tried to explain he was only there to accept a package, Abdallah’s Volvo pulled up. Still sweating from his time in the garbage bag, Doyle raced toward the Volvo at the end of the waterfront. But Fabozzi, who had trailed the van, got there first and leapt inside. Moments later, Abdallah was in custody.
Abdallah never strayed far from his childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn. But as far as the world’s financial companies knew, for that glorious six months, he was everyone and he was everywhere.
Martin Biegelman, the Postal Inspector’s officer who first busted Abdallah in the 1980s, was sitting in the subway the next day when a fellow passenger held up a copy of the Post to read it. That’s Abdallah, he thought, eyeing the scruffy face splashed on the cover. That’s the kid I busted for getting credit cards using fake letterhead 20 years ago. Within hours, Biegelman was on CNN and dozens of other television stations with the “I knew him when” part of the story.
“He was a petty criminal, not exceptionally good. But he did stay with it. He advanced with the technology,” said Biegelman, who 20 years earlier had talked Abdallah into appearing in the fraud video mentioned earlier. “He was very cooperative. A good kid, really.” Abdallah’s main technique then, requesting account information on faked or stolen letterhead, still did the trick in 2001.
When police caught up with him, he had rubber stamps bearing the names of Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns, two prestigious New York investment companies. The stamps turned out to be a key element in Abdallah’s scheme. It all started with letters sent to credit reporting companies, sent on official-looking letterhead, requesting credit reports on the world’s richest people. The credit reporting companies complied, and that gave Abdallah the head start he needed. He knew victims’ Social Security numbers. And he knew where their accounts were. He could call Paul Allen’s broker and request a transfer, leaving what appeared to be a West Coast callback number. But it was just a voice mailbox.
Sloppy, amateur mistakes
He used virtual fax machines and even anonymous e-mail accounts to do his dirty work. And when it came time to receive stolen goods, he used drop locations and hired runners to cloak his trail. For six months, he lived it up as the world’s rich and famous. When Abdallah’s story hit the front page of the New York Post, the Brooklyn kid was hailed as a genius who had used “sophisticated cell phones.” He had so many accounts and so many deliveries headed to so many places in New York, it was amazing he could keep them all straight, police said. He had evaded authorities and for months was only an “electronic blip” on the web. In hundreds of publications worldwide, Detective Fabozzi, who had worked electronic and financial crimes in New York for a dozen years, was quoted as saying Abdallah was “the best I ever faced.”
That, both Doyle and Fabozzi now say, was an exaggeration, a bit of over exuberance by the publicity department at New York’s Finest. Abdallah made dozens of sloppy, amateur mistakes. He was caught trying to move $10 million at once, an amount sure to trip alarm bells. The requests came from two free Yahoo! e-mail addresses. When Merrill Lynch checked its customer database, it discovered Abdallah had used those same e-mail accounts in connection with five other wealthy Merrill Lynch clients. In fact, he had used the e-mail addresses all over Wall Street. Had Abdallah been even a little cautious, he would have created hundreds of disposable e-mail addresses to not raise suspicion. And he certainly wouldn’t have tried to move that much money all at once. Meanwhile, by 2001, cell phones with Internet access were hardly “sophisticated,” and neither were remote voice mailboxes. Abdallah was not a genius—he just outsmarted a very dumb system.
There were open cases all over New York involving Abdallah’s fraud, Fabozzi said, but not because Abdallah had eluded police—more because “no one cared.” When a bank or a credit card company loses money, the lending institutions generally just write it off. They have a high-dollar threshold for pursuing an investigation; and so does law enforcement. It’s the same everywhere, Fabozzi says, with all white-collar crime investigations. A huge paper trail is a lot of work. Criminals know that. They can stay under the radar forever committing small paper crimes of $10,000 or less. Abdallah knew that, too. But he went after Siebel’s $10 million, anyway. He wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t even the best Fabozzi had ever faced. He was just compulsive.
As he pled guilty to 12 counts of mail and wire fraud in October 2002, Abdallah admitted as much, telling Judge Loretta Preska in a Manhattan court that he was on medication for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I wish I could say that this was all about money—then I’d have a reason to explain why I’ve ruined my life,” he said.
The only technique that might be considered resourceful was his method for obtaining the critical credit reports on the world’s richest people from the credit bureaus—his use of corporate seals from Wall Street firms to forge the paperwork for the requests. After all, even to the irreligious, a credit report is a sacred personal document. The nation’s three main credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—are the financial historians of America, the Santa Claus of money. They know if you have been naughty, and if you have been nice. They have pages and pages of data on every American who has participated in the credit economy. They are entrusted with this information, which is central to every American citizen and his or her basic rights to buy a house or a car. The firms and their data are also central to the smooth operation of the economy as a whole. For Abdallah to crack that system wide open, to get copies of credit reports on the world’s richest and most famous people, credit reports that obviously receive extra care, he must have employed true criminal genius.
Could it be that easy to crack the country’s most personal archive? Philip Cummings, an underpaid help-desk worker at a Long Island software company, had already discovered the shocking answer, authorities allege.
Excerpted from "Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic" by Bob Sullivan. Copyright© 2004 by Bob Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.