The men used fake cards with real numbers to steal about $200,000 worth of goods, authorities say.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000
It started when Publix in Palm Harbor called the police about a man who bought 30 cartons of cigarettes with a phony credit card.
The card number was legitimate, but it belonged to a Brazilian who had never set foot in the United States.
"It went from there," Pinellas County sheriff's Detective Eric Smith said of a two-year investigation that ended with four men accused of a mammoth campaign of credit card fraud.
The Miami men shopped all over Florida with their counterfeit cards, buying more than $200,000 worth of merchandise in 21 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, authorities said Friday.
The foursome made more than 300 transactions with 83 cards -- fake cards embossed with real account numbers, investigators said.
"These men acquired legitimate Visa and Mastercard account numbers issued to individuals from as far away as Istanbul, Turkey," said Statewide Prosecutor Melanie Ann Hines.
With the four men behind bars, three big questions remain unanswered: Where did all those account numbers come from? Who made all those cards? And where did all that merchandise go?
Investigators think the men were buying jewelry and electronics to be resold elsewhere.
"You just don't go out and buy the amount of computers and cigarettes they were buying to consume at home," said Rick Morera, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "It's a unique case because the banks they obtained credit cards from are literally worldwide."
Three of the accused men -- Roberto Padron, Antonio Prado and Roland Alejandro Ruiz -- are in jail in Miami. The fourth, Raul Ignacio Roque, was already in prison on unrelated charges.
The four are charged with 168 counts of credit card fraud, grand theft, organized scheme to defraud, and trafficking in counterfeit credit cards -- charges punishable by decades in prison and heavy fines.
They were caught because they used their real names on some of the bogus credit cards, said Smith, the Pinellas sheriff's detective.
At least one of the men visited Dillard's in Tyrone Square Mall and Kmart in Seminole Mall, Smith said.
They preferred big chain stores, Smith said. They would buy a Sony Playstation at Target or Sears, then five bottles of $50 cologne at JCPenney.
"They would tell the clerk they were buying the stuff to send back to their home country, usually Venezuela," Smith said. "They said it was cheaper for them to buy it here and send it there."
The men bilked businesses and credit-card companies between February 1997 and April 1998, staying on the move to avoid detection, Morera said.
"If you had a list of the merchants sorted by date, you could actually pull out a map and follow where they had been going," Smith said.
The individual bearers of the stolen credit card numbers won't end up paying for the $200,000 worth of merchandise, investigators said.