Police say local man fronted for identity thieves by sending goods to Africa
A pending Portland criminal case sheds light on an alleged, little-known Nigerian fraud scam that has victimized people coast to coast.
Police contend that a small Southeast Portland home with peeling green paint and a sign in the window saying, 'This home protected by angels' has served as the conduit for dozens, if not hundreds, of fraudulent transactions in the past several years, many involving Dell computers, all while occupied by a 64-year-old former TV repairman named James R. Judd.
'I did not know that they were stolen when I first started,' Judd said in a telephone interview with the Portland Tribune, while contending that he did not knowingly sell stolen goods. 'And I got tricked into it a little.'
In the last three years, local and federal law enforcement officers have discovered hundreds of pieces of fraudulently obtained computers and other merchandise as well as other questionable transactions linked to Judd's address, documents show.
The scam works like this: Nigerian scammers using other people's financial information order merchandise such as computers, but ask that they be shipped to a United States address - one belonging to a middleman or broker. The broker then reships the computers to Nigeria.
This tactic avoids the ban that many computer companies and retailers have on doing business with anyone in Nigeria, based on the high percentage of fraud operations based there.
But even though Portland police think they have found a significant local contact for the Nigerian fraud ring, there remains a disturbing missing link: the connection that explains how so many people were victimized in so many different cities - all from across the Atlantic Ocean.
'I wish I knew (how) the victims' credit cards were compromised, because I haven't found the thread that links them together yet,' said officer Barbara Glass, a fraud investigator based in East Precinct.
Every possibility she is considering is disturbing. Was there a significant security breach in a centralized financial database somewhere? Have Nigerian scammers penetrated more than one such database? Or are identity thieves across the country feeding information to Nigerian scammers?
'It may be something as sinister as some kind of bank database got compromised at some point, but it may just be a whole bunch of people funneling information to the bad guys,' said Glass, a 19-year veteran. 'I've probably talked to more people across the United States in the last month putting that (case) together than any other case I've worked on.'
FBI found packages
According to an affidavit prepared by the Multnomah County district attorney's office for a court hearing Tuesday, two FBI agents showed up at Judd's house in February 2005 and discovered his basement and garage to be full of packages waiting to be shipped.
The FBI explained to Judd and his wife that they were breaking the law but that the couple would be let off with a verbal warning, based on FBI policy regarding reshipping scams.
It's unknown why the FBI has such a policy, but such scams are designed so that the intermediary can claim ignorance of the law.
Judd, who has reported having a seventh-grade education, told the Portland Tribune he genuinely did not know of the criminality of many of his actions. For instance, the merchandise he received on behalf of someone going by the name Jennifer in an Internet chat room.
'I do, to this day, believe that it was her stuff that she was sending me, but I could not be 100 percent sure,' Judd said.
'It's an interesting, convoluted and multifaceted case that almost no one wants to touch,' Glass said, adding that the difficulty of proving such cases explains the work it took to make the case against Judd.
Two years after the FBI contact, Glass executed a search warrant at Judd's home, and found about $30,000 worth of stolen merchandise. Judd at that time said he would receive six computers, keep one and ship the rest to Nigeria. He sometimes would sell his cut at a pawn shop.
Judd told the Portland Tribune that he was not aware that this arrangement was illegal. He said that he had tried to enlist the help of the police to make the stolen merchandise stop coming to his house.
'I wanted to stop these people, but no one would listen to me,' he said.
In March Glass conducted another search of Judd's home and found check paper and counterfeit check proofs, among other things.
Judd said that some of his motivation was to pay for medical expenses stemming from a stroke, a bad hip and respiratory problems. For instance, he said he missed his hearing on Tuesday because of a hospital stay - one for which he was stuck with a $25,000 hospital bill.
Besides his repeated house calls from local and federal law enforcement, Judd also has been prosecuted twice in Clackamas County. In 2005 he was accused of trying to pass a bogus check to the Bank of Montreal. He was not convicted.
In 2006 he was convicted of attempted aggravated theft after trying to pass a bogus check to Town Center Bank worth more than $10,000. He was sentenced to two years' probation.
Victims were shocked
For Edward Kahn from Norfolk, Va., the first he knew of his information being compromised was when he loaned his Sears credit card to his son - but the card was rejected when his son went to buy gas.
One week later he received a phone call from Glass informing him that he'd purchased more than $3,000 worth of overhead displays and shipped them to Portland.
Kahn, a financial planner who has received training in identity theft, said he has no idea how his information got out.
'I guess my reaction was how incredibly easy it must be for criminals to retrieve one's personal information,' he said.
For Carol Owens from Owensboro, Ky., meanwhile, the tipoff was when a brand-new Dell computer was shipped to her front door. She immediately called the company, only to discover that her Dell account had been used for other purchases, too.
Despite calling several different law enforcement agencies, only the Portland police have called her back.
The identity thieves 'had all my information: name, address, Social Security number, credit card information,' Owens said. 'I don't know where they got it.'