How I Caught a Counterfeiter with a Little Help from my Friends
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in the interest of getting this out, no fancy layout, just hand coding. maybe i'll spruce it up later.
the names of the innocent have been changed, the names of the guilty though...
I am a college student (my second time around). Specifically, I'm studying to become a high school history teacher. I am a student with a lifelong habit though, Macintosh. I got my first Mac in 1986, a used Mac Plus with 1 megabyte of RAM a massive 40 megabyte external hardrive. Since then, I've always had to keep up, first it was the SE, then the IIsi, the Powerbook 140, and from there on, more Macs than you can shake a stick at (I missed the Mac TV). I usually keep my Mac for about 6 months, and then resell it and move up. I almost always buy used, so don't get any ideas about me being rich.
Since I went back to being a student again, I've been selling Macs more regularly, picking up good deals on used Macs locally and then reselling on eBay. I've been doing this for about two years now, its relatively easy, takes about an extra hour of my day, and usually pays the rent. In November when the new Powerbooks came out I decided I was going to buy one for myself, to keep, an early Christmas present that would come in handy for taking notes in class and finishing up a presentation I needed to do on the New Orleans school system. The day they were announced I ordered a nice new Powerbook G4 867 and found it on my doorstep only a few days later.
It was a beautiful machine, if you've never played with one in person, you won't believe it. I played with it for a couple of days, took it to school to take notes and do research on. The more I used it, the more I loved it. But, it was just too much to be carrying around, $2300 in my backpack had a tendency to make me a little nervous. I decided maybe I should turn it around and pick up an iBook. My girlfriend and I decided we would use the extra money to donate to some charities for Christmas. So on November 19th, up on eBay it went, along with an Airport Basestation and a bunch of other knickknacks. I set a buy-it-now price on a whim for $2950.
The next morning I checked my auction, a couple of bids placed, and so the buy-it-now option was gone. Checking my email I got a couple of questions about the computer and much to my surprise, an offer to buy it for $2900 from Steve Matthews, a dad with a lucky son in college who was going to be getting a Powerbook for his birthday. Steve wanted to pay for it COD, no problem, its actually how I usually sell things. I called him on the phone number he gave me to ask a couple of questions and make sure everything was on the up and up.
He reiterated that he was buying it as a last minute present for his son and since it was already setup as a package, he thought it was a good deal. Not to mention the Chicago Apple stores were still out of stock. I got home from school, packed up my Powerbook and accessories, and off they went Fedex overnight to Chicago, never to be seen again.
At 10:21AM on November 21st, a man going by the name of Paul Smith signed for my two packages and gave the driver an official cashier's check from LaSalle Bank for $3052.78 in return. The check made it back to my doorstep the next morning. I went to the bank, deposited the check and withdrew enough to go ahead and pay my rent and pick up a couple of household items. I sent an email to Steve to make sure he got everything ok and to check that nothing had been damaged in shipping. No reply. As the old saying goes, no news is good news, right?
My girlfriend and I went away for Thanksgiving, and when we got back on Friday, I had a message from my bank. The branch manager had called to let me know she had a returned item for $3052.78 and that my account was now in the negative. Seriously in the negative. No problem I thought, I'll just call Steve and see what's up.
So I dialed the number I had. In the back of my mind I expected a "this number has been disconnected message". Instead I got an answer, the voice sounded identical to Steve, so I asked if Steve was there.
"Oh, Steve, yeah, that's my cousin, he's out of town for Thanksgiving you know. He'll be back Tuesday"
"Can I leave a message for him?"
So I left my information and asked that he give me a call. That little voice in the back of my mind let out a sigh and an uh-oh. The voices were the same right? Was I being scammed? Well, if I was, I certainly wasn't going to let the weekend go by without doing a little investigating.
I started off with the information I had. His AOL email address, his phone number, and the address I shipped the computer to. The AOL address didn't yield anything. Doing a reverse lookup on the address (thanks to Whitepages.com) I got three names and phone numbers, none of which matched anything I had. The phone number didn't give me anything. I finally found a way to lookup the exchange on the number to see if it was a cell phone or a landline (Fone Finder). It came back as Nextel and I wanted to scream.
There really isn't anything you can do with a cell phone number. There are no directory services. The cell phone companies won't give out any information. And that's that. I called Nextel and pleaded with them. The customer service rep I spoke with seemed more confused than anything. He kept asking me what my Nextel phone number was and why I suspected someone was fraudulently billing to my account. I calmly explained at least three times that I was not a Nextel customer, that I was just trying to get an address for another customer I suspect has defrauded me, etc, etc. I finally gave up on Chris from Nextel, I've had customer service reps who don't even speak English who were more helpful.
I was at a dead end. I'd just sent my $2300 laptop, my Airport basestation, and a load of stuff to somebody I didn't know and all I had to show for it was a bill from Fedex for overnight shipping and a returned cashier's check. It's hard to sleep comfortably knowing some asshole has your Mac and is doing god knows what with it.
Sunday the first of December, I sprang into action full force. I called for help. I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere with this on my own, so I figured I might be able to get some help from some bulletin boards. I posted my tale of woe and call for assistance on every Mac bulletin board I could think of. I hoped that somebody who worked for Nextel, some fellow Mac addict like myself, might be willing to bend the rules a little. I wanted this guy's address and I wanted it bad. I was already pricing flights to Chicago and putting my professors on notice that I might have to miss a little class. I may have made an error in trusting this person, but I'm not someone you want to have that happen to. I will get you. I will hunt you down, and I will bring a baseball bat with me.
I got more replies than I could keep up with. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to help or at least offer support. Well, everyone except one guy who just wanted to let me know how incredibly stupid he thought I was and that he would never have accepted a counterfeit anything. I think a 102:1 great person to asshole ratio is pretty good. Several people living in Chicago offered their assistance, be it in gathering information or even forming a tough guy squad if necessary.
The most important reply I got was a pointer to an online PI service that does reverse lookups on cell phones. I was already beyond broke, but I figured $85.00 more wouldn't kill me. Twelve hours and $85.00 later, I had a name, an address, and a landline phone number for this guy. The name and his AOL email were eerily close, actually with a last name like Christmas, it would be pretty weird if it didn't match up. I couldn't believe it. A Chicago resident named Melvin Christmas had just ruined my Christmas. I was expecting William Faulkner to come popping out of the pantry at any moment and laugh at me.
I was now ready to call the police. I called the Chicago police department and filed a report. I gave the operator all of my information, including the real name and address I had managed to get. "A detective will contact you within one to two weeks, thank you." One to two weeks?!? I had this guy, I'd done all the work already, all you had to do was go pick him up. I'd even gone ahead and called Fedex and spoken to the Chicago station manager and was assured that the driver would cooperate in identifying the guy if necessary. All they had to do was pick him up. In one to two weeks he could be gone. And all the while my precious Powerbook is sitting god knows where being used by somebody completely undeserving of a Mac. I know in my heart that Mr. Christmas is really a PC guy.
I was furious. Chicago PD weren't going to do anything about this. If they were anything like the New Orleans PD, one to two weeks was likely to turn in to never. I figured I'd call Mr. Christmas myself. Let him know I was going to give him a chance to fix this, and I thought, maybe at least scare him. Let him know he was dealing with someone who would track him down no matter what, even if I had to make a deal with the Prince of Darkness to do it. Mr. Christmas said he didn't even know what email was. Obviously a PC user.
I kept checking the message boards. Maybe someone would have a better idea. I called the local FBI field office. Agent Jones was very understanding, but let me know that even though this crossed state lines, the field office didn't take anything involving less than $5000. "Try the Chicago PD".
I kept everyone on the Mac boards updated as best I could. On Tuesday I got a useful reply, try the Secret Service, counterfeiting is their jurisdiction. I made my way to the under-renovation Federal Building here in New Orleans. After walking many a dark, scary hallway, found myself at the door of Agent Keith Lopola. Keith came out and heard my case. I had brought copies of all the emails between myself and Steve Matthews/Paul Smith/Mr. Christmas, a copy of the check, and the call journal I had started keeping. Agent Lopola told me the same thing the FBI did, "It falls under our jurisdiction, but we can't take the case." He wanted to let me know that he really felt for me. Thanks. I left the office determined to call and bother him and the Chicago PD everyday for the rest of my life or at least until Mr. Christmas was behind bars.
Finals were fast approaching. It's not very easy to concentrate on school when all you can think about all day is the fact that all of your student loans for the next semester are going to cover this counterfeit check. That and some grubby criminal has your Powerbook. It's enough to drive someone to the drink.
Tuesday night I got an email from someone who had seen my story posted on O'Grady's Powerpage, a Powerbook enthusiast site. George Dunbar had seen the story and thought it sounded eerily similar to his. I called him, we compared notes, and turns out it was the same guy. George forwarded me all of his emails. Everything was the same, word for word, it was like Mr. Christmas just copied and pasted and magically made money. George was in it worse than I was though and had completely given up. He was out $6000 and two computers. He also let me know that there were more victims. He'd talked to at least three other people who had been taken by the same guy, all of whom had just given up. I was not going to give up. That night I dreamed of Mr. Christmas and a baseball bat, some duct tape, and roofing nails.
Wednesday morning I decided I was going to Chicago. I set up another eBay auction under my girlfriend's account, this time for same computer, different city. Three hours later, lo and behold I received an email from eBay user videopro55 (the same one) asking me if I'd like to sell the computer right now for $2500. Oh yes, I'd love to sell the computer, I'll even be there when it gets delivered to make sure it gets "setup properly".
He emailed me a new address and phone number, the phone number again traced back to the same address for Mr. Christmas. I called the Secret Service and the Chicago PD, pleading, all they had to do was be there when Fedex dropped off the package. It was a guaranteed hit, he'd have another counterfeit cashier's check, all you'd have to do is arrest him. Like shooting fish in a barrel. "Sorry, Detective McDonaugh will be out until next Wednesday, can I take a message?" Fine, if the cops won't do it, I decided I'd just Priceline a ticket and be waiting next door when it got dropped off. So I'd know what kind of neighborhood I was looking at, I asked for help again in the Mac boards. Two Chicago residents replied, and the next morning, courtesy of Tim, I had 23 pictures of the house, the cars in the driveway (with license plate numbers) and the neighborhood. I'd like to see a Dell user do something like that at 4:30 in the morning for a complete stranger a thousand miles away. I started planning my trip. I decided I'd leave on Saturday, have the package delivered on Monday, and make it back just in time to screw up on all my finals.
On Friday in preparation for flying up I mapped the new address from the one for Mr. Christmas to see how close it was. As I looked at the map, it hit me. The new address wasn't in Chicago. It was in a suburb, Markham. I googled for the Markham police and 5 minutes later was talking to a very enthusiastic Sargeant Knapp. I had hit the jackpot, the new drop was outside of Chicago jurisdiction and therefore outside of their inattentiveness as well. Sargeant Knapp informed me he loved this kind of thing, even had a UPS and Fedex uniform ready. He'd call Fedex and they would set it up for Tuesday. I was certain I was dreaming. After talking to two detectives in Chicago, an FBI field agent, an agent in the New Orleans field office of the Secret Service, an agent with the L.A. Secret Service and having a conference call with a large group of agents from the Chicago Secret Service, I finally was getting somewhere. And I didn't even have to stand on someone's doorstep with a baseball bat to do it.
I spent the entire weekend on pins and needles. What if Mr. Christmas figured something out between now and Tuesday? All would be lost. I wouldn't even get the chance to confront him on my own. On Monday I spoke with Sgt. Knapp to make sure everything was ready to go. I had sent him a package with all of my documentation (he didn't have email), and I tried to explain what all the email stuff meant as best I could. He had worked everything out with Fedex and they were set for the delivery on Tuesday.
I called my brother in Nashville and had him send the package. I had set everything up to be coming from there so that Mr. Christmas wouldn't get suspicious. I could barely sleep Monday night. All I could think about was something going wrong and my only chance at getting this guy being missed. I wanted to update everyone on the Mac boards, but I had to keep it quiet until I knew something was going to happen.
Tuesday afternoon Sgt. Knapp called. They had tried the delivery but no one was home. I just wanted to scream. The board users kept posting how the suspense was driving them nuts. Well, it was going to give me an aneurism. A million possibilities went through my head. Maybe he had somebody working at Fedex who tipped him off, maybe I worded something in one of my email a little off. Sgt. Knapp called me back to let me know they would try the delivery again tomorrow. He also wanted to let me know that they had intercepted another package that was being sent to the same address. Looks like he'd already struck again, thankfully the lady from New York will get her computer back. He also told me that he was definitely going to keep pursuing this, and that oddly enough, the address I'd given him was also related to another fraud case, but this one much bigger (hundreds of thousands) involving a certain Chicago franchise I won't mention. So maybe I had led them to something bigger than just some asshole counterfeiting cashier's checks.
Today I had finals all day. I'm a 4.0 honors student. I've had a 4.0 all semester. I'm not sure if I'll keep that after today. I just couldn't sleep last night. All I could think about was Mr. Christmas and the delivery. I couldn't study either. So I winged it, I'll get my grades tomorrow. I called Sgt. Knapp at 2:45. He told me he was on his way back to the house. They'd already made the delivery and arrested the guy. He had more than $10,000 in counterfeit cashier's checks waiting for deliveries.
*I* got him.
I'm right now waiting on Sgt. Knapp to fax me a copy of his mug shot for posterity. Then I'm going to go celebrate. Sgt. Knapp said the guy was cooperating and he was going to try to recover my laptop. I'm hopeful, but I don't expect it. I might not ever get my computer back, but at least there is one less asshole on the street. When will criminals learn? You just shouldn't mess with Mac people.
For everyone on all the boards who offered their help and encouragement, I thank you. This would have been a lot harder without you. If you're ever in New Orleans, look me up and I'll buy you a beer. I've still got to figure out how I'm paying to college next semester, but I'll keep some beer money set aside for ya'll.
Oh yeah, and if there are any lawyers in the Chicago area who can file a civil suit against this guy for damages (yeah I know I'm not going to collect) please contact me, misterye a t yahoo d o t com
The sites with great users that helped out (you can sign up for the forums and read all about this as it was going on):
Update 12/11/02 18:58 CST: Sgt. Knapp is sending me a copy of Mr. Christmas's mug shot. I'll post it as soon as I get it.
Update 12/11/02 21:39 CST: For those interesting in getting in contact with me, my email address is misterye at yahoo dot com, if you think you were also a victim, please call me at 504-894-1243 and I'll put you in touch with the appropriate people.
Update 12/11/02 23:36 CST: I've gone back through and added links where appropriate. I'll try to reformat this tomorrow.
Update 12/12/02 10:36 CST: Ok, so how's this for small world: Apparently this thing is getting posted everywhere. I just got a call from Matt of the Real World Season 9 (the New Orleans Real World). So anyway, the cast of the New Orleans Real World used to all work at 735 Nightclub. I moved down here to actually take-over their marketing right after the show ended. So I never met Matt or any of them until speaking to him today. Small, weird world.
Update 12/12/02 12:03 CST: I've added a forum where everyone can talk about this. Here it is.
Update 12/12/02 13:30 CST: For those of you wanting to donate to my cause, I urge you to choose a local charity. There are a lot of needy people and organizations out there this season, if you can't think of anything local, I'm a big fan of Doctor's Without Borders and Lambda International. If you really must, you can send money to my girlfriend's Paypal account, email@example.com. She's the one who's covering this check for me right now, so I guess she should get this. I'm still not entirely sure about this, but you've insisted. Thanks again.
Last update Wednesday, December 12th 13:49 PM CST
Copyright 2002 Jason Eric Smith