Black market travel scheme leads to 38 charged

Saturday, July 10, 2010 | 4:28 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — More than three dozen people have been charged in connection to a nationwide scheme that used thousands of stolen credit card numbers to buy airline tickets that were later sold at large discounts, federal prosecutors in Missouri said Friday.

Six indictments charging 38 people were unsealed Friday and detailed an underground network of so-called black market travel agents. The operations netted more than $20 million and involved "thousands of victims, thousands of credit cards that were stolen and thousands of airplane tickets," said Beth Phillips, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Court documents indicate schemes were found across the country, including in Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

"I can't understate the significance of this," Phillips said of the charges, which she called "one important step in a very important investigation."

The black market travel agents used stolen credit and debit card numbers to buy airplane tickets for customers, many of whom were aware the tickets had been bought illegally. The ticket prices typically ranged from $75 to $250 and were often bought at the last minute to increase the chances of not being detected, according to the indictments.

"A passenger could often complete his or her trip before the credit or debit card was detected as being compromised," Phillips said.

Some of the defendants also acted as "passenger brokers" by referring customers to the black market travel agents, Phillips said. Customers were also among the 38 people charged.

The network began unraveling when two Missouri women were caught with a stolen home computer, along with mail and credit card numbers that didn't belong to them.

"And one conspiracy led us to another conspiracy, which led us to another conspiracy, which led us to another," Phillips said. "That's how we learned it was a nationwide scheme."

The U.S. Postal Service, several airlines and the Secret Service helped with the investigation, which began shortly after Sabrina Bowers, 29, of Kansas City, and Deidre Turner, 27, of Peculiar, were charged in 2005 with stealing a laptop from a home in Overland Park, Kan.

Both women were accused of obtaining the credit card numbers from hotels in Overland Park and Atlanta, where some of the identity theft victims had been guests.

Some defendants bought credit and debit card information from people in Bangladesh, Vietnam and other countries for a "nominal cost," according to the indictments.

Most defendants face charges ranging from conspiracy to aggravated identity theft and access device fraud, which are all felonies. Most of the people indicted have been arrested, and some have been released on bond, Phillips said.

She said three or four haven't been caught.

Identity theft victims have been identified in more than two dozen states, from Arizona to Massachusetts, along with Washington, D.C., and Saskatchewan, Canada, Phillips said. Tickets were bought for flights out airports across the U.S. on several different airlines.

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