Face Off

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

In short, these people knew what they were doing.

"ID-theft rings don't randomly walk into your shop," Tucker says. "They've given it a lot of thought. For example, they're looking for places where employees get a commission and maybe won't question a suspicious situation."

Work in Tran's ring was divided into three roles, according to police: collectors of stolen identities, converters of the stolen data and passers (or runners) who hit the stores.

"Collectors are the foot soldiers of identity theft," Tucker says. "They lift letters from mailboxes, steal wallets from purses and generally snoop out personal data any way they can. They sell this information—oftentimes for drugs—to converters, who are the brains of the operation. Peripheral members of the organization use the Internet to obtain credit scores and reports associated with an identity. Often, getting the most out of a stolen identity means using a passer who is bold enough to walk into stores or financial institutions and use the fake ID."

Tucker says Tran's scam used at least 27 people, including three people who belonged to three different Little Saigon street gangs. Others in her crew worked at businesses with access to detailed financial information on customers—places like mortgage companies, real-estate firms and car dealerships.

"She was very sophisticated," he says. "Possessing good information is a commodity. So Tran would invest in people on the inside of these companies from $200 to $500 per identity, depending on the person's credit score. The higher the score, the more valuable the information."

Businesses everywhere were ripe for attack. "Tina wasn't bound by state lines," Tucker says. "She'd put people on planes to all over the country—as far away as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington—and have them return to Orange County immediately after the theft."

Adds Elizabeth Henderson, a veteran white-collar-crime prosecutor in the OCDA's office, "This was a national ID-theft ring, and it was extremely profitable. Maybe 10 years ago, they would have been robbing stores with weapons. Now, they do it this way. But most of these people are greedy, and they make mistakes. One person we found [in another ID-theft case] had 56 different driver's licenses with his picture on them."

*   *   *

On March 2, 2005, Trung Ngo—a converter in Tran's ring and, according to police sources, also her bedmate—and passer Harold Nguyen walked into Bose Electronics at the Block in Orange. Nguyen had a doctored California driver's license with his picture on someone else's data. The clerk suspected nothing and processed the order; the two men left with a top-of-the-line 32-inch flat-screen, plasma television and surround-sound system. Tucker believes the pair quickly fenced the TV in Little Saigon, and then returned the profits to Tran.

The following day, Ngo, 51, returned to the store with a young Vietnamese female and another man, Nghia Le, 28. When Le asked for the same expensive merchandise, the same clerk became suspicious. While she pretended to process the purchase, she contacted the Orange Police Department.

In the meantime, another team from Tran's crew entered the store: 57-year-old career criminal Phil Nguyen (burglary, forgery, identity theft and receiving stolen property convictions) and passer Chi Bich Ton, 37. It was a rare moment of disorganization. Tucker has studied the video surveillance tapes from the crime scene and doesn't believe either team knew about the other.

"I think it was just an amazing accident," Tucker says.

But the clerk's delay spooked Ngo, the lookout in the scam. He left the Bose store with the young woman—Tran's daughter. As police approached, Le asked for directions to the outdoor mall's restrooms and fled. When officers entered, they found the second team—no doubt startled—and made an arrest.

"Ton tried to get away," Tucker says. "She was throwing other fake IDs in the trash can. She had even stuffed fake IDs into her sock."

The Bose incident provided clues that would help unravel Tran's operation. Tucker says he "reverse engineered" the crime and proved Phil Nguyen's supporting role. He credits the store employee. "She called the police when she got suspicious," said Tucker. "We'd catch more of the people if more store employees called us."

*   *   *

If three-term District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has succeeded in anything, it's been his office's aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and gangsters. But as Rackauckas, 64, nears the end of his career, he also hopes to make a dent in white-collar crimes. To help fulfill that mission, Don Blankenship—Rackauckas' top detective—hired Tucker from the Irvine Police Department in 2003. (The DA's office has a history of raiding Irvine's elite sleuths.)

Tucker had an immediate impact. Identity thieves were striking all over Orange County. The level of activity overwhelmed police departments. But two of the crooks—Tani Mohamed and Andy Tran, often working in tandem—had caught the attention of Tucker, Newport Beach Police Detective Rick Bradley, who susequently joined the OCDA, and Westminster Police Detective Glenn Finley.

On May 4, 2005, officers stopped and arrested Mohamed in Garden Grove. Tucker took possession of the suspect's cell phone. Working with Sprint and Virgin Mobile USA phone-security employees, Tucker determined that Mohamed had "frantically" dialed a single 626 area code cell-phone number nine times in the minutes after officers served a search warrant at his Anaheim home.

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