Rap Song on Credit Card Scheme Tells Broader Tale, Prosecutors Say

Story originally appearing in The New York Times:

Pop Out Boyz, a rap collective from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, took their lyrics from real life when they released a single this spring all about the material rewards of a crime not often mentioned in urban pop music — credit card fraud, prosecutors said.

The song, titled “For a Scammer,” was rooted in experience, the prosecutors said. Members of the group and their associates have been indicted in Manhattan on grand larceny charges, accused of stealing more than $250,000 worth of luxury goods from Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue over the last year.

The song’s chorus boasts, “I’m cracking cards ’cause I’m a scammer,” using a street term for card fraud. At one point, one of the vocalists raps, “Watch the money do a back flip, early morning up at Saks Fifth, you see it, you want it, you have it.”

The case reflects a broader trend in New York City, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said. As street crime and drug dealing have declined over the last two decades, there has been a surge in identity theft and credit card fraud, and these crimes are increasingly being committed by relatively unsophisticated young adults from working-class homes, the police and prosecutors said.

“Credit card fraud in Brooklyn is becoming a big issue,” said Capt. Christopher Flanagan, the commander of the Financial Crimes Task Force for the New York Police Department. “The cards are easier to get now with the development of some of these dark websites, and as one person learns how to commit a fraud, they spread that knowledge to others.”

The websites that the Pop Out Boyz are accused of using had names like Uniccshop, Joker’s Stash and Rescator, and they peddle data from a steady stream of security breaches at retailers, hotels and other businesses. A single card number can go for $35 to $150, though some cut-rate sites sell them for as little as a dollar, security experts and the police said.

“You don’t need to be a criminal mastermind to pull this off; it’s not that hard to get the numbers,” said Gary Shiffman, an economist specializing in illicit online markets who is the founder of Giant Oak, a data analytics company.

A decade ago, such stolen card information was traded on shadowy forums on the dark web, accessible only through routing programs that hid a person’s identity and location.

But the sites have evolved and resemble other online retailers, featuring a shopping cart, customer service and a checkout process, said Damon McCoy, an assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering who researches the sites.

Once registered, the customer can search for card numbers by bank, by ZIP code, by credit limit and by the length of time since the information was stolen. Some sites even have loyalty programs, frequent-buyer discounts and money-back guarantees, Mr. McCoy said.

Adnan Baykal, the chief technical adviser at the Global Cyber Alliance, a nonprofit group, said law enforcement officials and banks can do little to shut down the sites.
Many mask their locations and can be connected to only on the dark web. Others have multiple entry points on the internet, so when one is shut down, the owners can quickly switch to another.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, has made internet crime and fraud a major focus of his administration, winning convictions in more than a dozen similar cases. He has said one-quarter of the felony prosecutions by his office now involve internet crime or identity theft.

The police said most of the 39 people arrested in the Pop Out Boyz case grew up together in the neighborhood around the Raymond Bush Playground at Madison Street and Marcus Garvey Boulevard. Three were rappers in the Pop Out Boyz, who performed at Brooklyn nightclubs, and several others were part of the group’s entourage. Another defendant, Larry Dathan, rapped under the moniker Big B’z.

Prosecutors said a core group of 11 defendants bought card numbers from at least five websites, starting in May 2015, and shared them in emails and texts with one another. Several had also bought encoding machines and other equipment that they are accused of using to manufacture forged cards.

The group recruited friends to shop at Barneys and Saks to buy luxury clothing and accessories — high-end shoes, Balmain jeans, Celine and Goyard handbags. Prosecutors said the group made 275 purchases at Barneys alone over 55 days, walking off with $258,000 worth of goods. Saks lost $11,000 worth of merchandise in two months. The group used more than 2,000 stolen credit card numbers from banks in France, Canada, Germany and Dubai, the police said.

Most of the people in the group of 39, many of whom were arrested on April 26, were in their late teens and early 20s. One of the directors of the group, the prosecutors said, was Anthony McKoy, 21, who raps under the name Ant Stay Maccin. A high school graduate, he lives with his parents on Throop Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mother works for Gap, his father for a trucking company.

Mr. McKoy has pleaded not guilty to the charges, his lawyer, Michael Fineman, said. But prosecutors said he played a key role, supplying stolen card numbers to others, manufacturing cards and even making $4,000 in purchases at Barneys and Saks himself. An embosser and encoding machine were found in his home, along with a gun, prosecutors said.

In May 2015, Mr. McKoy started posting photos of himself holding wads of $100 bills on his Facebook page. The page also featured the Pop Out Boyz logo and concert posters.

One of the most prolific shoppers in the group, prosecutors said, was Kaishaun Trisvan, who also pleaded not guilty. Mr. Trisvan, 21, lives with his mother, who works in the radiology department at Lenox Hill Hospital, his lawyer said in court. He graduated from high school and had no criminal record.

Yet prosecutors said Mr. Trisvan had made more than 35 trips to Barneys, spending $44,000. And they said the police had found 120 forged cards at his house and $3,315 in cash.

His lawyer, Eugene Conway, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

It is a sign of the times, investigators said, that some of the defendants in their 30s indicted in the Pop Out Boyz case have records for drug crimes and robberies but that most of the defendants in their teens and 20s either have no criminal record or have been arrested only for financial crimes.

“These kids have grown up with computers,” said Lt. Timothy Fenfert, who leads the Police Department’s Special Fraud Squad in Brooklyn. “They have been downloading movies and music since they were 10 years old, so it’s not much of a leap to download credit card numbers.”