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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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."

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.

The clue was the break Tucker needed. Cingular Wireless officials told him that the number belonged to Thuy Huynh—one of Tina Thi Tran's aliases—at a Westminster address. The detective obtained Huynh's driver's license data. The image looked familiar. He compared the photo with surveillance footage from identity thefts committed at Neiman Marcus at Fashion Island. They matched.

Tucker then checked court records for Huynh. He learned that someone with that name had been ticketed for failure to obey a red light in Santa Ana. A picture of the violation clearly showed Huynh sitting in the driver's seat of a Mercedes-Benz SUV at an intersection and holding a cell phone to her ear.

But the SUV was registered to Harold Nguyen, who lived in a Santa Ana house. He'd been part of the Bose heist. When questioned, Nguyen said he only knew Huynh as "Liz" and thought she might be a key player in the ID theft ring, records show.

In a final stroke of luck for police, Nguyen's cell-phone memory listed calls to the same 626 number Mohamed had contacted.

*   *   *

If Tran had any clue that Tucker's net was tightening, she didn't show it. Why should she? She'd compartmentalized her crew. She'd avoided using a hot ID by keeping detailed dossiers of information in storage units rented in other people's names. She'd made sure the fake IDs were manufactured in places with no visible link to her. She'd been careful, she thought, to cover her sources for the insider credit data. She'd used trusted underlings to carry out missions with the newest members of her ring. Many of her transactions took place quickly at various Little Saigon cafés.

From a distance, it even appeared she'd lived a quiet, humble existence. Her only vice—other than being a criminal mastermind—seemed to be her interest in partying and gambling in Las Vegas or at the Hawaiian Gardens Card Club Casino in Los Angeles.

"This group had many built-in safeguards," prosecutor Henderson says.

She explains that ID thieves like Tran understand that law-enforcement agencies have limited resources and that violent crimes get priority. Also, police officers often don't have the skill or the patience to track paper or electronic crooks and that committing crimes in multiple jurisdictions usually creates nightmares for detectives, Henderson adds.

All of that is true—unless someone like Damon Tucker is on the job. As a countywide detective, he's able to help coordinate investigations. In Tran's case, he relied on help from cops in Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Brea, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Orange, San Gabriel, El Monte, Garden Grove and the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

"We could do nothing but arrest the runners who hit the businesses all day," Tucker says. "But I knew that if we took out the heart of this ID-theft ring, the organization would wither and die."

*   *   *

Back to the beginning of this story: On June 14, 2005, undercover teams watched Tran leave her Little Saigon rental house on Forrest Lane just after lunch, and then drive her beat-up Dodge van to Schooner Street in Garden Grove. There, officers saw her get into a silver 2002 Mercedes-Benz SUV with ID thief Loc Nguyen, 35.

Tucker had another piece of the puzzle.

Officers tailed the duo for four hours as they drove throughout Orange County but, oddly, never stopped. When they returned to Schooner, Tran's time in obscurity ended. Officers swarmed. Inside Loc Nguyen's room, they found fake IDs, counterfeit credit cards and stolen merchandise.

Tucker arrested them both.

But Tran had no clue how much Tucker knew. She was carrying a fake Arizona driver's license, and she lied about her residence, claiming she lived in Garden Grove, nowhere near Forrest Lane in Little Saigon.

Tran couldn't explain why she carried false ID or why she was in stores when ID thieves struck, recalls Tucker. She also played dumb—English was suddenly confusing—about her knowledge of a crime ring.

Later, during a search of Tran's home, Tucker came face-to-face with a man he'd seen on video-surveillance tapes: Trung Ngo.

Yet another piece of the puzzle.

"I'd say that was really bad luck for Ngo and Tran," Tucker says.

Like everybody else in the house, Ngo initially claimed he didn't recognize a photograph of Tran. Officers found pictures of the two posing as a couple and evidence they shared the same bedroom. Ngo was arrested for ID theft and criminal conspiracy.

Confiscated documents showed that Tran used Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and Westminster storage units leased by other people or by her using one of her aliases. Searches of the units found more than $90,000 in cash, counterfeit credit cards and licenses, hundreds of victim profiles stolen by insiders in legitimate companies, and forgery tools. The search was a 17,000-page gold mine for prosecutors looking for a paper trail.

One piece of evidence made Tucker want to cry: Recovered records indicated that members of the crime ring were getting government welfare checks, too.

Another made him chuckle: Though making a nice living as a crook, Tran had a cheap side. All of the victims' dossiers were stored in large overnight envelopes provided free at U.S. post offices.

"It was unfortunate for Tran that we randomly picked one day to do surveillance on her, and she led us to so much evidence," Tucker says. "We were able to destroy this cell . . . but, to be honest, I don't think we'll ever know her true identity."

*   *   *

Prosecutors locked up crew members Dat The Pham for 13 years; Son Kim Do, six years; Loc Phuc Nguyen, six years; Trac Dinh Hoang, six years; Loan Thi Kim Nguyen, 64 months; Vanni Dang, 40 months; Xuan My Trang, three years; Harold Nguyen, three years; Thong Minh Tran, three years; Julie Huynh Nguyen, 32 months; Nghia Huu Le, two years; Trung Ngo, 16 months; Khoi Dinh Do, 16 months; Nhan Bao Dinh, 16 months; Ngoc Xuan Pham, one year; Veronica Ruiz Caro, six months; Tani Mohamed, 190 days; Andy Hong Tran, 190 days; Chi Bich Ton, 30 days; Huy Thanh Vu, 30 days.

Huy Quach, Danny Khalil and Hai Ngoc Nguyen are awaiting trial. Vinh To and Toan Tran are fugitives. Phil Nguyen, the career criminal, awaits sentencing on Aug. 31.

And Tina Tran?

The DA's office charged her with 105 felonies. Before they could try her, she slipped from their grasp in December 2005—but not to freedom. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed her from the Orange County Jail.

Tran had been multi-tasking. Federal agents conducting "Operation Newlywed Game" arrested her for her role in a massive fake-marriage scheme to illegally bring Chinese or Vietnamese nationals to the United States. According to court records, Tran participated in 70 sham marriages and filed more than 30 bogus visa applications on behalf of fake spouses or family members. Agents say she charged up to $60,000 for each fake marriage.

A year ago, Tran pleaded guilty to three federal charges and is awaiting sentencing by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter. She faces a maximum of 25 years in prison and a $750,000 fine for the marriage scam.

"We'll wait our turn for her," local prosecutor Henderson says.

Tucker, who declined to be photographed for this story to protect his undercover work, is back to work on other white-collar scams. He says the best way to thwart ID thefts is for businesses to use biometric safeguards. But until that happens, he promises to continue the hunt.

"I know there are other rings out there right now," he says. "They think cops are stupid. But we're like the Mossad [the Israeli secret police]: They won't know we're close until it's too late."

To view a slide show of mugshots of those in Tran's crew, click here.

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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