Face Off

A Little Saigon identity-theft ring pounded OC businesses until one cop saw a tear in its veil of secrecy

If anyone had watched Tina Thi Tran open the front door of her nondescript rented house on Forrest Lane in the heart of Little Saigon at 12:15 p.m. on June 14, 2005, they wouldn't have guessed they were looking at an undisputed giant among Orange County's criminal masterminds.

Why should they? Standing at 4-foot-8, Tran might have appeared like a slightly lost Vietnamese immigrant.

But police detectives hidden from view were watching 45-year-old Tran as she drove away in a battered, blue 1997 Dodge van that day. Or was her name Thuy T. Huynh? Or Liz? Or something else? She had stockpiled hundreds—if not thousands—of fake identities, cops would later allege.

Although officers conducting Tran's surveillance didn't know her real name at the time, they were sure she was tied to a brazen Vietnamese-American criminal organization that routinely burglarized stores at the county's ritziest shops in South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, according to law-enforcement records.

Because of the electronic nature of today's commerce, Tran's group didn't need to use guns, knives or threats of violence to steal. These thieves relied on warm smiles and chatty demeanors, coupled with counterfeit driver's licenses and credit cards, to calmly walk out of Southern California shops with perhaps more than $1 million per year in high-end merchandise, police say. Among their favorite targets were plasma televisions, Rolex and Movado watches, Gucci handbags, gift cards, laptop computers, and anything by Cartier or Louis Vuitton.

Success bred confidence. So convinced of their infallibility, ring members even gave tips to shop clerks if they'd help carry the stolen products out of stores and into getaway vehicles. In many cases, it wasn't until weeks later, if ever, that employees realized they'd been duped.

Tran's identity-theft operation—which had elaborate safeguards against detection—might still be ripping off stores today if it weren't for a momentary tear in the veil of her organization. Tran wasn't aware of the gaffe, but a dogged young police detective hadn't missed it.

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Damon Tucker, a fraud investigator with the Orange County district attorney's office, sits in a small fifth-floor cubicle with a north-facing window overlooking Santa Ana and the distant San Gabriel Mountains. Tucker doesn't have a very sexy title, but he's no unkempt desk jockey counting the days until an Idaho retirement. He's a tall (6-foot-1), lean (180 pounds), blue-eyed athlete (world-class swimming and track) who wouldn't look out of place on MTV's The Real Orange County: Newport Harbor High—except he's in his thirties.

In Spain in 2003, he was a member of the four-person OC team that won the World's Toughest Competitor Alive games, which include runs, rope climbs, bench presses and an obstacle course. Two other years, he was instrumental in the team winning second place.

Tucker is guarded about his own life. For example, he's from the Midwest, but he won't say which state. A shoulder shrug is his answer to what city he lives in. His age? He volunteered a ballpark figure.

But our own probe found that the detective balances all of his wholesomeness with a hint of rebellion. He's a bassist and vocalist in a Huntington Beach-based U2 tribute band. In 1992, he also started the band Parkaimoon with guitarist Tony Howell. Their success earned them a spot on KDOC's Buzzz Televisionshow.

But it's Tucker's skill in tracking white-collar criminals that has earned him frequent tours as an expert lecturer on identity theft to other detectives, store security professionals, college students and even community groups. Cal State Long Beach employs him as an instructor in its criminal-justice program.

Tucker's ability became apparent while he worked as a detective for the Irvine Police Department in the late 1990s. EBay-related Internet crimes were skyrocketing, especially in that city's well-to-do neighborhoods. While some older detectives were baffled in their attempts to solve these new types of high-tech scams, Tucker proved adept at catching such crooks.

White-collar crime wasn't his first choice of assignments, though.

"I wanted to be like Martin Riggs [Mel Gibson's character in the Lethal Weapon series]," he recalls. "I wanted to be working homicides and narcotics. But somebody thought I was good at solving computer and high-tech cases. I guess it was fate."

Though it would take half a decade, Tucker's career turn put him on a collision course with Tran and her crew.

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Police detectives say there are two types of white-collar-crime conspiracies: roundtable and hub-and-spoke. In a roundtable scheme, most, if not all, of the criminals meet and plot strategy as a group. In a hub-and-spoke arrangement, a shot-caller gives directions to a supporting crew whose compartmentalized roles prevent them from knowing the identities of most of their accomplices.

According to Tucker, Tran built a hub-and-spoke ring that maximized efficiency and limited risk. Even if one person in the ring was arrested, he wouldn't know enough to lead cops through several layers of the chain of command. Certainly, Tran—as the unlikely ringleader—couldn't be touched if everything went as planned.

"If you look at her on the street, you'd never know in a million years what this little lady was up to," Tucker says. "She was really smooth, and she ran a good organization. It was a corporation, really. It had a human-resources department. It had management. It made investments. It had recruiting. It had a raw-material section. It kept detailed records. It had everything a corporation has—but they didn't pay taxes or obey the law."

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