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Cracking cards: Multimillion-dollar ATM scam celebrated in rap songs

1-23-01 River PlazLobby. ATM's. People line up use ATM Machine Tuesday afternoon. Story ATM machine ripoffs. Phoby Scott Stewart/Sun-Times...SS neg

1-23-01 River Plaza Lobby. ATM's. People line up to use a ATM Machine Tuesday afternoon. Story on ATM machine ripoffs. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times...SS neg No. 01-01-413 (Ditigal Image)

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Updated: January 13, 2014 6:04AM



When federal authorities busted Christopher Cain in a bank fraud scheme called “cracking cards,” one of his tattoos caught their attention: an automatic teller machine was inked on one of his arms.

Cain, 26, of the 3700 block of West 83rd Street, is a suspect in what officials say is a growing ATM scam that often targets college students and their bank accounts. Federal authorities say cracking cards appears to have roots on the South Side — and Chicago rappers have been glorifying the scam in their songs — but it’s now being seen in other cities.

The crime is simple: the scammers put stolen or counterfeit checks in bank accounts belonging to other people. They borrow the cardholder’s debit card and PIN number to withdraw money from the account before the bank learns the check was fake.

The cardholders are recruited through ads placed on Facebook, YouTube and other social media networks. Sometimes, the schemers even go to college campuses to recruit the account holders in person.

Their pitch: Let us put money in your bank, and we’ll give you a cut.

Often, though, the schemers give the account holders nothing. And the account holders are left dealing with the police and the bank when the checks are revealed as fakes.

Authorities estimate cash-hungry college students represent at least 25 percent of the people who agree to let scammers to use their debit cards and PIN numbers.

One investigator said more than 1,000 young people have reported being victims of the scam in the Chicago area over the past 16 months.

Northern Illinois University in DeKalb is among the local campuses that have been hit hardest by card crackers. Students there are now warned during freshman orientation not to give up their debit cards and PIN numbers. Even though the students might be considered victims, authorities point out that providing their debit cards to someone else is a crime.

Cain allegedly was involved in a card-cracking scheme that recruited a female ATM cardholder through Facebook. In September, Cain was videotaped at a Fifth Third Bank ATM on the South Side depositing a counterfeit check for $2,800 into the woman’s account, using her card and PIN number, authorities say.

The next day, the woman withdrew about $2,400, which she handed to a person who ripped her off — driving away without giving her any of the money.

The woman later cooperated with federal postal inspectors. As a result, Cain was charged in federal court with bank fraud last month.

“The origin of [cracking cards] was Chicago, but now there is activity in Seattle, New York and other cities,” said Victor Demtschenko, the assistant postal inspector in charge here.

It’s also one of the recurring themes in Chicago’s “drill” rap music. For instance, in Chief Keef’s song “Ballin,’” he sings:

I be countin’ them stacks

Crackin’ cards, get back

I gets me a big check

And everything designer but it’s mismatch

Sgt. John Lucki of the Chicago Police Department’s financial crimes unit said several people a week are arrested in Chicago for card cracking.

Lucki said about 20 Morgan Park High School seniors were targets of card crackers about six years ago. None of the students was prosecuted, but their parents were on the hook for the bank losses, he said.

Since then, the scheme has widened and has become more organized, Lucki said. There are now South Side crime crews that specialize in card cracking, he said.

Although the primary victims have been young people — often college freshmen — card-cracking crews have started recruiting fellow criminals to obtain debit cards and allow counterfeit checks to be deposited into their accounts, Lucki said.

One of those alleged recruits was 32-year-old Robert Anderson, who has spent much of the last decade in prison on weapon and drug convictions, authorities say.

Anderson was arrested on Nov. 25 on a state charge of defrauding a financial institution. He was nabbed at the Fifth Third Bank branch at 1606 E. 79th St. after more than $4,000 in bad checks were allegedly deposited into his account, according to court records.

“We initially saw this in the student population and now it is expanding to individuals who were in jail or are on the fringe of unemployment,” Lucki said. “It’s a multimillion problem affecting the banking industry.”

Email: fmain@suntimes.com



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