Group accused of stealing millions from banks after using video clips and social media to promise card owners easy riches
BY MARK GUARINO | THE GUARDIAN
Thursday 30 October 2014 21.05 EDT
Twenty-nine people in the Chicago area have received federal and state indictments for their alleged involvement in a bank fraud scheme that was conducted over social media for several years and has cost financial institutions millions of dollars in losses.
Authorities say some of those arrested were Chicago gang members who used a wide range of social networks — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram — to post homemade rap videos that served to both flaunt the spoils of their success and to recruit victims. One of those arrested is Chicago rapper Kevin Ford, 26, who records under the name Bandman Kevo and who is best known for the song Baller In Me featuring controversial drill music rapper Chief Keef. He also had fall tour dates with Chicago speed-rapper Twista.
Court documents say Ford used social media sites to flaunt his riches — he often posted images of himself counting money or wearing name-brand apparel like Gucci and used pictures of a Maserati he owned — to convince others to participate in his scheming. Ford is also accused of printing counterfeit checks and posting a threat to law enforcement on his Facebook wall.
While the method to lure victims is new, the scheme — called “cracking cards” on the street — is an updated twist of identity theft, but where the victims are often willing participants. According to authorities conspirators used social media and other methods to advertise quick cash returns in exchange for debit cards and pin numbers. Once obtained they would deposit fraudulent checks into the accounts through ATMs; within hours they would then withdraw the funds at another ATM, currency exchange or point-of-sale terminal at a local store such as Walmart.
The banks, identified in the three-year investigation as Citibank, US Bank, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, did not learn of the losses until after the money was withdrawn.
The majority of the defendants are from the south side of Chicago and others from nearby border communities in Indiana and downstate Illinois. All were arrested and face various federal charges of bank fraud, among other charges. Sixteen of the defendants face the possibility of 30 years in prison and a $1m fine each.
None of those recruited have been charged.
Four of the defendants, including Ford, were members of the “RACK Boyz”, a hip-hop crew that created rap songs that overtly referenced “cracking cards” and were often pictured on YouTube videos holding wads of cash and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their crew name. They would then send private messages to followers encouraging them to participate in the scheme. Other members of the crew arrested are Cortez Stevens, 24, of Griffin, Indiana; Stephen Garner, 23 of Portage, Indiana; and Mikcale Smally, 21, of Chicago.
“If u wanna make 1900 all u would have to do is open up a citi bank account n they will give u a temp card we would be able to do it the next day from the time u get the cards … !!! u can do this every week No BS! hit me back asap!!,” authorities say Ford wrote in one message.
The crew produced videos for songs like For the Money and Money Bag that advertised easy riches through images of expensive jewelry, clothing, cars and stacks of cash.
Chicago police have long said that gang members use social media to recruit new members and brag about their activities; in 2012 they said police were incorporating Twitter and Facebook monitoring into their proactive audits of gang members.
Jens Ludwig, director of the Chicago Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, said gang communications had increasingly migrated from graffiti tagging in neighborhoods to social media, which aided law enforcement track in tracking their activities. But there could be unintended consequences when messages online were interpreted with deeper meaning than was intended.
Ford attorney Scott King told the Chicago Tribune that his client was a rapper and that the fantasies in his lyrics did not mean he led a life of crime. “I don’t know if the government has ever listened to a rap song but they’re typically not describing a cub scout meeting,” he said.
“Social media makes their back and forth more visible, which has the upside of making it a little easier for police to monitor, but it has the downside of making things potentially more antagonistic,” he says. “No one at this point really understands the net effect of this changing social media environment.”