July in Sherman Oaks, the year of our Lord 1996, and it’s one of those asphalt-inferno days that leave the knees buckling. The hordes of weekend shoppers are not so much walking toward A/C relief as staggering in its general direction. Onward they trudge, anywhere to escape the misery of their Sun Valley or NoHo hellholes. The friendly confines of the Galleria mall are today’s Valhalla in the Valley!
But in the midst of these soggy patrons are three distinctly clean and crisp young suburbanite-looking types whose gait suggests more serious business. “Credit Card” Carl and two female associates are on the march. Their destination: the mall’s more upscale establishments. Unlike the rumpled masses, Carl and friends are looking sharp — neat designer shirts and carefully ironed and pleated slacks. Italian loafers on Carl’s hooves; pristine heels on the girls’. In Carl’s pockets and the women’s purses rest a half-dozen or so stolen credit cards, which, like the afternoon sun beating down, are hot, hot, hot.
Strolling into Nordstrom, Carl, Kathy and Tammy make a beeline for the pricier garments — designer wear like Armani, Versace, Gucci — and start loading up. Casting an appraising glance at the merchandise — with the practiced eye of the professional thief that he’s been since high school — Carl rapidly computes the price tags. As soon as he hits his personal danger zone, that is, $3,800 worth of swag, he’ll hoof it to the counter.
A truly astute store detective, if there were one, would note that none of the three is trying on any gear. Carl and lady friends don’t even bother with that pretext, because every item will be returned later for cash. Nordstrom is very good that way.
Strutting to the cashiers with a relaxed, confident grin that is the polar opposite of his ordinarily manic state, Carl lays down three suits and two pairs of shoes. He proffers his Optima card with a seamless gesture that’s right out of David Copperfield’s act, zip! From wallet to machine in one swoop!
Carl’s never been asked for ID at Nordstrom, because he abides by some simple rules: Look upscale, have white skin, charge a shit-load. Carl smiles to himself at an adage he’d heard in juvie: “The bigger the lie, the more people believe it.” His take: The bigger the purchase, the less likely the whistle gets blown. Those clerks love them phat commissions!
This particular stolen Optima carries a window of about four days before the billing cycle catches up with its real owner. He’d had this baby activated with the purchase of a crappy $50 radio at the “Shack.” There’s rarely an ID required for a small purchase at a chain, and if there is, Carl simply claims he’s left his ID in the car — and then he disappears.
At Nordstrom, Kathy and Tammy bag about the same amount as Carl. Twelve grand’s worth of clothes, all destined to be re-racked across town in another Nordstrom later in the evening. The sun will set, and the merry trio will be awash in the green as the day swelters into night.
“Those were the good old days, man,” says Carl, stretching and sighing aloud in his cramped, midcity, $69-a-day hotel room. “Now, it’s become a major hustle — photo IDs, computer checks and criminal profiles of likely suspects everywhere.”
Carl reclines, puts his feet up on the butt-burn-stained coffee table and grins sadly. Although he and his cronies have developed “alternative methods,” he’s nostalgic for the good old days when, he says without an iota of irony, people trusted each other.
Carl has been a white-collar career criminal since he dropped out of high school at 17. A brief stint in juvenile hall and a “nudge from the judge” into the Coast Guard have been the only times he hasn’t scammed full time.
He’s done bogus oil-and-gas-lease phone sales from boiler rooms, done the phony sweepstakes ruse (“Congratulations, you’ve just won a trip to Hawaii, and all you have to do is . . .”). And he once had a very lucrative marijuana-for-Swedish-Quaaludes trade going. But none of these rackets ever fired up his adrenal glands like credit-card fraud.
A hyperactive and muscular 30-something, with deeply set eyes and neatly trimmed goatee, Carl can barely sit still most of the time. And he never stops talking, sometimes running out of breath before he runs out of words. When that happens, he slaps his forehead to regain his train of thought — a bizarre gesture he repeats about five times an hour. A voracious reader, he can and will hold court on every topic: politics, movies, art and his special love — muscle cars. But nothing heats him up more than a scam!
Carl, who came to L.A. from Jones Beach, Long Island (“Cirrhosis by the Sea,” he calls it), was in between cons, around 1990, when opportunity knocked in the form of a long-distance call from an old buddy, “Mr. X,” who worked at the Long Island P.O. annex. A while back, Carl had done some fencing of hot stereos from truck heists through X. And Carl liked this new plan X was pitching. X would snag credit cards at the mail sorting point and re-route them to Carl and crew in L.A.
It was a lovely collaboration.
At first, Carl’s method was to dash to San Diego or Orange County and blow out the cards quickly. “I never would do that shit here, the clerks in Hollywood have seen these scams, and the cops will even come in and brief them.” He adds, “If I hadn’t been a pig and just socked some of it away, I would be a millionaire now.”
Carl had a problem called Las Vegas. “Thousands and thousands blown on the tables and hookers,” he says. “But I was smarter than some of my running buddies; those idiots would buy everything in Vegas on hot cards. I used only cash at any place I was staying, never plastic. You don’t know a card’s billing cycle. Suppose you charge up a bundle on the 7th, thinking you’ve got till the 10th — and they check on the 9th. You’re screwed!”
This exhortation leaves him out of breath. He slaps his forehead, then laughs hysterically. “I can’t believe I never got snagged — I musta blown 750 G’s at least!”
Some of his ex–road dogs were not so fortunate. “First offense, assuming you have no priors, is maybe two years’ probation,” he says. “But that isn’t the bad part. The restitution is the bitch; they’ll take everything. If a bad check gets you three times the amount, figure that much, plus charges, plus fees, plus interest — and your friggin’ attorney’s fees to boot. Two thousand in a bogus card can cost you 8 grand easy!”
As time marched on and credit-card fraud became a billion-dollar business, Carl’s methods had to evolve. “They’ve gotten very wise, the banks and the stores,” he says. “But not impossible to bust on.”
His favorite new ploy is mail order. “You blow out the card via mail order and sell back the merchandise,” via the good old Recycler, sometimes via word of mouth, he says. “New car parts are best: engine parts, rims — pretty much untraceable. The worst is jewelry or anything with a code number.” He escapes detection by having his “purchases” sent to vacant houses for rent, then posing as the neighbor and signing for the parcel with a fake name. He used to use disguises — sunglasses, fake beards — but now doesn’t bother.
“Swiping” involves a different sort of ruse. “You get a bogus card number and go into a place where the clerks are part of the setup — the little shops on Melrose and Vermont are ideal.” The clerk then runs something like a driver’s license — something that won’t read — through the charge machine. Or he runs a charge card through a machine that isn’t hooked up to the system. In either case, nothing registers. It’s a bad read, and the clerk has to type in the charge number. “He puts in the fake number — and off you go. I’d kick back 25 percent — those poor schleps don’t make shit anyway.”
Why bother with the song and dance of swiping the card? “A lot of those dudes are on videotape now — which is the main way they get snagged,” he says. “It’s harder than the movies: no second takes, man. We’ve both gotta make it look really good.”
And Carl does. In a typical month, he scores 7 to 12 grand, but laundering the goods costs over half that: “So I’m not making a total killing.”
Another newer method is counterfeiting a credit-account check draft. “Optima and Discover will send you blank starter checks that are just like cash,” he says. And so are the counterfeits. “A computer hacker I know gets the names and account info on someone, and then, using Printshop, will print out a slew of rubber checks — it’s golden.” He grins ear to ear. “I doubt that the store owners are even wise to that one yet. Oh well, the price of being a good citizen, I guess!”
Carl also has a network of credit-company insiders who’ve turned him on to valuable personal information, TRWs and the like, that Carl puts to immediate use. One man’s wrecked credit is another man’s (Carl’s) windfall.
Why can’t someone this clever make an honest living?
“I love the rush, Johnny, it’s that simple. I’ve done every drug, been with every kind of woman, you name it. For some reason, scamming makes my heart beat faster. I know it’s fucked up, but that’s me.”
Currently, he’s floating from one flea bag hotel to another, as he never likes to stay anywhere too long. But with his laptop and modem, he’s always connected.
His new crew members are what he calls “Israeli Mafia types” — they never talk. Carl likes that. An active crook who’s never been caught has a lot to lose.
So why talk to the Weekly?
“Are you kidding? I love Outlaw L.A.,” he says. “I consider it an honor to be in such prestigious company — killers, hookers, bank robbers and now me, Credit Card fucking Carl.”
Anything, it seems, for a cheap thrill.