NEW YORK, AP
A restaurant busboy is accused of using the Internet and Forbes magazine’s list of the richest people in America in a scheme to steal millions from such figures as Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffett, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Ross Perot and Ted Turner.
Police are calling it one of the most ambitious identify-theft schemes they have seen. They are still tracing the complex electronic trail to determine exactly how much was stolen, but fear it could be well into the millions.
New York police investigators arrested Abraham Abdallah, a 32-year-old high school dropout, on March 7 as he allegedly picked up equipment to make phony credit cards.
Court papers say Abdallah was carrying the Social Security numbers, home addresses and birth dates of 217 CEOs, celebrities and tycoons. The information was scribbled in the margins of a tattered copy of Forbes’ “The 400 Richest People in America.”
Abdallah, police say, also had more than 400 stolen credit card numbers, including some that were used to buy thousands of dollars of computer equipment and gold coins.
“All those people … have not been compromised,” said Chief of Detectives William Allee, referring to the Forbes 400. “The ones we believe have been compromised, we’ve contacted.”
Abdallah, charged with multiple counts of criminal impersonation, forgery and fraud, is being held on US$1 million bail. Authorities said he has a long record of arrests for passing bad checks and other schemes, and once even appeared as an “expert” on a training video on fraud prevention prepared for credit card companies.
Defense attorney Sam Gregory said Abdallah is innocent. Prosecutors “made an unfair leap from possession of this information to an inference that there was an attempt to take money,” said Gregory, who declined further comment.
Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik described Abdallah as “someone who was very innovative, very creative. … He didn’t try to pry. He was very organized. He would go one step at a time to build his database.”
The alleged scheme was uncovered when an e-mail request to transfer US$10 million from a Merrill Lynch account belonging to Thomas Siebel, founder of Siebel Systems, raised red flags, police said.
Siebel said he never made the request and Merrill Lynch contacted authorities.
The trail of evidence led police to mailboxes rented by Abdallah under the names of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and James Cayne, head of Bear Stearns, court papers said. He allegedly used the addresses to order merchandise using their credit card numbers.
A spokesman for Allen said the businessman was cooperating with authorities. Turner, media mogul Michael Bloomberg and Spielberg were unaware that their identities may have been stolen, representatives said. Cayne, Perot, Winfrey, Buffet and Stewart declined comment.
A spokeswoman for George Lucas said the movie producer had not been affected by the alleged scam.
Investigators say Abdallah used computers at a local library, Web enabled cell phones and virtual voicemail during a six-month scam that involved duping credit reporting companies such as Equifax into providing reports on his rich victims.
He allegedly used the data to gain access to credit cards and accounts at brokerage houses such as Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch.
Equifax said it had no evidence of fraudulent access to its files, and had not yet been contacted by authorities.
Experts said the case was a glaring example of how access to private data on the Internet has helped make identity fraud one of the fastest growing white-collar crimes.
Martin Biegelman, a former Postal Service inspector, recalled using Abdallah to make the training video as part of a plea deal in the mid-80s.
“He agreed to go on camera as a reformed criminal,” Biegelman said. “He was talking about fraud, how easy it was. … He said he wasn’t going to do it again.”