Our man ordered waffles, but paid for tools of war
WASHINGTON AND AMMAN, JORDAN — All I wanted was a warm, crispy waffle. But I ended up sending a night-vision rifle scope to some unidentified criminal in Saudi Arabia.
Such are the realities of credit card fraud and identity theft in the Internet age.
Apparently, all it takes is a single credit card receipt from a quick breakfast in a hotel in Amman (or anywhere else), to provide a scam artist with enough information to purchase and ship the tools of assassination to a post office box in Riyadh.
Was this incident simply a case of an otherwise harmless Arabian ordering a weekend hunting accessory, or could it be the tip of another terrorist iceberg?
I must admit upfront that I have a vested interest in the answer to that question.
Both the purchase and shipping of the scopes were done under my name.
My worst fear is that "Warren Richey" may soon appear on an international watch list of suspected Al Qaeda supporters.
Did I mention that all I wanted was a warm, crispy waffle?
My story begins last fall during a trip to Jordan, where I had gone to write news stories following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.
Like anyone else traveling on business, I used a corporate credit card to pay for most of my expenses. I kept all the receipts and never lost my card.
But at some point, some one obtained my credit card number and its expiration date.
Transaction records reveal that the first attempted fraudulent purchase was made on the same day that I returned to the US. The $3,100 transaction for two Russian-made night-vision rifle scopes and a more high-tech miniature night-vision scope was refused because it exceeded the single-purchase limit on my card.
Roughly a month later, however, someone submitted a scaled-down version of the same order and it was accepted. According to my credit card company's fraud investigators, the order included one Russian night-vision rifle scope (a similar level of technology as night scopes used with deadly precision by US Marine Corps snipers during the Vietnam War), and a US-built range finder, an instrument that calculates the distance to a potential target.
Night-vision scopes are useful to soldiers because they illuminate and magnify a target in the dark without revealing the position of the potential shooter. The same technology has obvious utility for terrorists and assassins.
When the mysterious charges appeared on my credit card bill, I immediately notified the credit card company. They cancelled the charges and initiated the fraud investigation.
Then something really interesting happened.
One of my colleagues at The Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem correspondent Nicole Gaouette, noticed similar unauthorized charges on her credit card statement.
She had passed through Amman a few weeks after me, and had eaten at the same hotel restaurant, where she paid the bill with her credit card.
Within a few weeks, someone used her account information to send a $1,800 US-made night-vision scope with infrared capability to an address in the United Arab Emirates. It was shipped under Nicole's name.
The fact that two people from the same US-based newspaper could become victims of the same type of credit card fraud seemed to suggest that a large-scale operation might be underway.
When I mentioned this to the fraud investigators at my credit card company, they agreed.
I called my local FBI office to report the crime. I briefly explained my case and was transferred to an extension with a telephone answering machine.
After the beep, I again described my case and left my name, hometown, and telephone number. I made the call at 11 a.m. on Dec. 21 almost six months ago.
The FBI has not yet responded to that call.
In fairness to the FBI, there is no proof that this instance of credit card fraud is in any way connected to Al Qaeda. (But it would, nonetheless, be of interest to the Saudis to know that someone in their capital city is obtaining such equipment. US Central Command, with thousands of US troops based near Riyadh and already on alert for possible terror attacks, might also find this information useful.)
The rifle-scope fraud is significant in broader terms as well. It is a clear illustration of how easy it is for anyone including Al Qaeda terrorists to use credit card fraud via the Internet to purchase quasi-military technology and ship it risk-free to operatives in key locations around the world, according to Internet fraud experts.
In early December, a federal grand jury in New York returned an indictment of three men accused of bilking various credit card companies out of roughly $150,000, according to federal court documents.
Press reports quoting the FBI put the total fraud closer to $1 million.
According to the court documents in the New York case, the three men created a shell company and then applied for and obtained credit cards with high credit limits. They then used the cards to transact fake purchases from the shell company, pocketing the proceeds, and later defaulting on their credit card bills.
In the night-vision scope transactions, the criminals used stolen credit card account information to pay for the scopes and then used the account holder's identity to ship the equipment to another country. Should these scopes be used in a terror attack in Saudi Arabia and then recovered by police, purchase and shipping documents would lead investigators straight to me rather than the criminal network involved.
One lingering mystery about the case is the identity of the Internet merchant who sold the scopes.
Fraud investigators at my credit card company say that since they got their money back they are not interested in further investigation.
The fraudulent credit card transactions were processed by a company called Ccnow.com, which acts as a middleman for Internet merchants.
When I contacted the Delaware-based company, an official refused to identify the merchant who had sold "me" the rifle scopes.
"But this was fraud," I said. "You must be required to maintain business records."
Lorenzo Anderson, an e-commerce consultant at Ccnow, said the company has a policy of destroying all transaction records after six months even in instances of known fraud.
"You will never know who the supplier was," Mr. Anderson said. "You would know if you placed the order yourself. But if you didn't place it yourself you would never know because (in fraud cases) we just give the money back and we end things right there."
Ccnow says it has a confidentiality agreement with Internet merchants. Such an agreement, in effect, also serves as a firewall that could protect merchants who might either knowingly or unknowingly facilitate fraudulent purchases and shipments.
Where does the case stand now? A senior FBI official contacted recently by a Monitor editor promises an agent will call me soon.
Meanwhile, the next time I want a warm, crispy waffle, I think I'll just pay cash.