KS police detective’s work cracks major shoplifting gang www.privateofficer.com
But the arrest led to a five-year investigation that moved far beyond shoplifting and ended last year with more than three dozen federal indictments for an estimated $20 million in nationwide fraud — much of it linked to black market airline tickets.
And on Tuesday, the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators is giving its task force of the year award to the Kansas City Identity Theft & Economic Crimes Task Force.
Pierce led the task force’s investigation, called Shopstyles, along with postal inspector Steve Ryan and federal prosecutor John Cowles.
The award application tells how tactics like monitoring social media and tapping cellphones used technology to take down a scheme that itself was made possible by technology.
From December 2001 to March 2010, thieves operated a vast illegal black market in deeply discounted airline tickets that they bought with stolen identities. They got the credit card information from various sources that included hackers in southeast Asia.
By now 33 people have pleaded guilty and one, a former reality TV show contestant, was convicted this month in federal court in Kansas City.
The two alleged shoplifters who inadvertently launched the investigation are scheduled for federal trial in November.
Sabrina Bowers, 30, of Kansas City, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit credit card and identity theft. Deidre Turner, 28, of Peculiar in Cass County, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and two counts of aggravated identity theft.
John Osgood, Bowers’ attorney, said the federal allegations are “way blown out of proportion.”
Turner’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Pierce said of the two women last week: “At first appearance they might look like low-hanging fruit, but they’re not.”
He told how the investigation unfolded:
In the purses of the two women, police said, they found handwritten credit card numbers and owner’s names, addresses, telephone numbers — even three-digit security codes for their cards.
A search of the women’s car, investigators said, turned up stolen internal hotel records that listed guests’ personal information and had imprints of their credit cards. They also found torn, discarded Delta Air Lines tickets.
A call to Delta security confirmed the tickets had been purchased with stolen credit card identification, including some stolen from Delta pilots.
Delta security went to work with the task force. The company told of nationwide fraud with a similar pattern.
One-way tickets got booked close to departure times. By the time the credit or debit cards were found to be compromised, the passenger was done with his trip. People paid black-market agents as little as $75 for tickets worth many times that, prosecutors say.
Pierce said of Delta: “They knew there were so many people involved, but where do we start?”
Investigators went after the sources, he said.
“Who had access to stolen credit card information and how were they getting it?”
Meanwhile, Bowers and Turner pleaded guilty to a state charge for the shoplifting but were not charged with any other crimes.
In 2008, task force agents arrested them at a gate at the Kansas City airport after they flew there from Atlanta with tickets allegedly purchased with stolen credit card information, according to Pierce and the application for the award.
They still refused to talk, he said, other than a statement from Bowers: “This is too big. You’ll never be able to figure it out.”
Authorities released them and later connected them to a black-market travel agent in Atlanta, he said. The task force developed an informer who bought tickets from that black-market agent.
Wiretaps on cellphones also found black-market ticket operations in Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.
Agents used Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to identify suspects and make connections.
All these people didn’t know each other, Pierce said, but “they somehow got linked to someone we were looking for, and that got us looking at them.”
The task force issued 962 grand jury subpoenas, carried out 26 federal search warrants and analyzed more than 27,000 voice calls and text messages, plus thousands of other email messages, the award application states.
The investigation spread from Delta to other airlines, put away many thieves and prompted some airlines to upgrade software and change procedures, Pierce said.
One airline reported that its fraud losses dropped from $4.4 million last year to only $524,000 so far this year, he said.
Pierce, 43, says he will work undercover at Oak Park Mall again this December, as he did when he caught the two shoplifters in 2005.
The detective, who has 16 years of experience in the police financial crimes unit, will also continue to work with the task force to monitor airline fraud, he said.
He’ll be there when the task force gets its award Tuesday at a conference in Charlotte, N.C.