High-Tech Sleuthing Nabs Scam Suspect
by Matthew B. Stannard, The San Francisco Chronicle
Julian Antonio Torres lived the high life, police say.
He spent his nights in San Francisco's Embassy Suites and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Half Moon Bay. He tooled around the Bay Area in a Mercedes or astride a lightning-fast motorcycle. He watched big-screen televisions and chatted with friends on cell phones.
Not bad for a 21-year-old drifter from San Mateo.
Only one problem, San Jose police say: Torres is no dot-com millionaire, but a computer-savvy crook who turned mail stolen from ritzy neighborhoods in San Francisco and Woodside into cash.
Now, Torres has been booked on 63 felony counts of theft, forgery, identity theft and possession of stolen property. He was being held Tuesday in Santa Clara County Jail in lieu of $ 1 million bail, said Ken Munson, San Jose police detective. More arrests are expected in the case.
Torres was part of a ring of thieves from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties whose victims spanned those counties as well as San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Cruz, and possibly others from Florida and Minnesota, Munson said.
The thieves would target wealthy neighborhoods and steal mail left in boxes or public bins, searching the envelopes for credit card and bank records, he said.
Armed with the credit card data, Torres allegedly would reserve hotel rooms over the Internet, buy stereos and huge television sets online, and purchase motorcycle accessories -- some to keep, some to sell for cash.
Torres also allegedly opened five E-Trade accounts and 31 PayPal online billing accounts, then transferred huge sums into them from the raided bank accounts. Some of the withdrawals bounced, but plenty of others went through unchallenged, Munson said.
"All he needed was the routing number and the account number, and he would start transferring money" -- at least $ 100,000, which Torres then would withdraw from ATMs or use for more online purchases, Munson said.
Some of the cash was converted into cashier's checks, which Torres allegedly would use to buy fancy cars and motorcycles he found advertised on Craigslist and other Bay Area online bulletin boards, Munson said. A Mercedes here, two Corvettes there, a BMW, a pair of Acuras, a stable of motorcycles -- 16 vehicles in all, he said.
Some of the vehicles Torres kept, and some he sold to unsuspecting buyers who would discover the car was stolen only when they tried to register it with the state, Munson said.
Police in the Internet age see these kinds of crime every day, Munson said, adding that investigators are deluged with reports of bank fraud, online theft, missing mail and similar crimes.
So many are reported that they sometimes get little investigation. In fact, Torres himself was arrested in San Francisco last year with a fraudulent check and a stack of stolen mail, but prosecutors declined to file charges, Munson said.
But together, the cases now allegedly linked to Torres represented at least $ 250,000 in losses, he said, and dozens of victims.
"We've found at least 75 people that have had mail stolen," Munson said.
But one of those alleged victims decided to strike back -- Jill Maggio, owner of San Jose's Bridge Wireless, where Torres allegedly bought several Nextel phones with a bad check in February.
"He cost us a lot of money," Maggio said Tuesday. "It was really just the principle of the thing."
Once she discovered she'd been had, Maggio turned her technical skill to the problem, switching the service from the stolen phones to units in her shop. Before long, the voice mail on each phone began to fill up with some really interesting messages.
One she remembers well: "Hey, I got another credit card number for you."
"I think the big crack in the case was when a girlfriend called," Maggio said. "She left a number."
All of the voice mails were routed to Munson, including one from Sony regarding a laptop that Torres allegedly purchased with a stolen credit card. Munson made a phone call to Sony to get Torres' e-mail address -- and a few search warrants later, dozens of cases began coming together.
"This thing continues to blossom. Every weekend, I get more victims," Munson said. "There's a lot more out there."