NEWARK — Many scam artists are looking for ways to get rich quick.
Then there are the 18 people authorities said spent years meticulously creating fake credit cards, building up their credit scores and borrowing money they never repaid in what may be one of the nation’s largest credit card fraud rings.
The 18 were charged last week in what authorities said was a sprawling international scam in which at least $200 million was stolen using at least 7,000 identities and 25,000 credit cards. The enterprise spanned 28 states and eight countries, authorities said.
The elaborate, widespread fraud involved an outlay of patience and meticulous planning rarely seen in such a large credit card fraud case, authorities and industry analysts said.
“What they did was very painstaking, very sophisticated and took a lot of time,” said Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in Newark, who announced the arrests Tuesday.
The swindle involved duping credit reporting agencies by falsely inflating credit reports, opening cards under false names, and creating businesses through which the defendants could pay themselves with the cards, authorities alleged.
The con is a tried-and-true way to cheat banks and credit card companies, but rarely is it carried out on such a large scale because it is hard to execute.
“It’s been around forever,” said Al Pascual, a senior analyst at Javelin Strategy and Research. “You just don’t see one group do it with hundreds of thousands of cards. That’s what’s throwing everyone back a bit, the fact that they were able to do it so often and to such a great extent.”
Credit card fraud losses in 2011 totaled $6 billion, Javelin estimated.
The scam started at least as early as 2007, Fishman said. The group created thousands of fake identities, sometimes using real social security numbers. One credit card was opened with the identity of a 6-year-old boy; others used Social Security numbers of people who were willing to leave the United States for a fee, Fishman said.
“You have to pull a lot of stuff together. You have to have a phone service and address where you’re paying bills,” said Avivah Litan, a vice president and analyst at Gartner Research. “They have to do a lot of background work to look like a real person.”
The group then opened credit cards with small credit limits. The users purchased everyday items like groceries and paid off the bills so they could increase their credit score. That way, they were able to give the impression that they were a trusted customer, giving them access to a higher credit limit and cash advance checks.
Litan said one of the most impressive aspects of the scam was that the defendants were able to access so much credit during the financial crisis. They likely had to appear to be sterling customers in order to pump up their credit limits so high.
“They did this the last few years when credit was hard to come by,” Litan said. “The banks don’t give you $50,000 right away.”
Authorities allege defendants added one another and sham businesses as authorized users on credit card accounts, giving more people access to good credit. They received credit card machines with the scam businesses and paid themselves with the cards, Fishman said, and three jewelry stores in Jersey City were allegedly complicit in the scheme.
The defendants then maxed out the cards, buying electronics, jewelry and luxury cars. They also took out loans or cashed the checks and never paid back the money, authorities said.
Authorities found $68,000 in an oven during a raid.
Fishman said some of the defendants didn’t have jobs and spent their time perpetrating the fraud. One unemployed man allegedly withdrew or wired $1.5 million from his bank accounts, prosecutors said.
Authorities did not directly say how the fraud came to light, but a co-conspirator was named in court-documents, indicating that someone may have been cooperating.
Pascual said it would be very unlikely credit bureaus would have caught a fraud like this if the cards were initially being used responsibly and paid off. Red flags also would not have been raised if accounts were opened using legitimate social security numbers that did not have any prior credit accounts, such as a child’s.
“The activity itself shouldn’t have garnered any notice until they stopped paying the bills,” Pascual said.
And even when they stopped paying the bills, credit card companies often write that off as bad debt, Litan said.
“Finding them probably wasn’t as hard as putting it all together,” she said.
Fifteen people have been arrested, including a ringleader who was apprehended at John F. Kennedy Airport preparing to board a flight to Pakistan.
One of the defendants pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft last month. Verlina Adams admitted in federal court in San Jose, Calif., that she tried to defraud a credit card processing company by creating fake businesses.
Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management at the American Bankers Association said the industry is working to crack down on electronic fraud, much like they did with check and debit card fraud.
“We’re going to see the same thing in the electronic environment,” Johnson said. “Over time, we’re going to get smarter about how to prevent these losses.”