Even though it was an activity that gave him “a natural high,” Mr. Kaboa turned credit card fraud and identity theft into a rather humdrum, workaday business. He maintained careful files and had offices in two Mission Valley condos. He filed regular tax returns on his income, listing himself as a credit consultant. He employed four full-time clerical workers and a host of meth- and crack-addicted agents. And he paid himself a tidy, but hardly awe-inspiring, $127,000 a year at his peak in 2003 (though he said this didn't include “freebies” such as drugs). When one of his 50 or so clients walked through the door, Kaboa had a typical set of moves he'd make on their behalf.
“We'd burn out their credit—use up the payments in their legal name, then dump it. You can't go to jail for debt,” Kaboa said. “They've been living large—big car loans, big TVs. We're filing bankruptcy. Then we'd move into the identity theft. Now we need to take on someone else.”
Kaboa would speak to CityBeat only on a conference call, and he insisted on an assumed name for his own safety. He worries that his old cronies would catch up to him. But in his heyday, he churned through other people's credit with ease, presenting a cautionary tale.
Since 1995, violent crime—which includes rape, assault, robbery and homicide—has dropped by 60 percent, according to Justice Department statistics. A study by the San Diego Association of Governments says violent crime in countywide has dropped by roughly a third since 1998. But while good police work and a strong economy deserve much of the credit, the bad guys have also been retraining into New Economy forms of robbery. The San Diego Police Department reports that financial crimes and identity theft have gone up 20 percent in the last two years. Usually, they say, it's meth addicts who pull the stunts, but other criminals are increasingly turning away from stickups in favor of low-risk, high-reward fraud
“They see a guy walking around with a gun in his pocket get busted, and he gets a long sentence,” said Michael Groch, the head of the San Diego County District Attorney's Economic Crimes Division, “whereas these financial crimes, we're only just starting to get the longer sentences.”
Groch said that many judges and juries don't understand the devastation wrought by identity thieves. When someone like Kaboa “burns out” someone's credit, the victim might find himself buried in debt, his wages garnished and with no ability to take out a loan or get a credit card—and it can take years to untangle the mess.
Kaboa's career began at 18 when he needed someone to co-sign a $15,000 loan for a new Mercedes. He'd been emancipated from his parents for three years, and he balanced clerical temp work with school well enough to earn a 3.8 grade-point average. He wanted a car, and he had no one to co-sign. So he forged a name, took the confirmation call at his own number and got the car. That was in 1999.
He didn't go into the business full-time until a couple of years later. He abandoned college when he went to work as a senior clerk for the San Diego Housing Commission. There Kaboa met a friend who explained how he could give himself a raise. First, buy check-production software. Then buy a printer. Then re-create a paycheck with a different dollar amount on it.
“I gave myself exactly a 50-percent raise. I was fair,” he said.
Then he took the check down the street to a check-cashing business a couple of blocks from his North Park home and cashed it.
“I observed [the clerk's] eye movement or anything like that to see if there were any abnormal activities… and nothing—she cashed it like it was a legitimate check,” he said.
Kaboa needed all of a week to realize that faking checks would be more lucrative—and more fun—than his job. “I called the boss a dick, and I'm out of there,” he said.
He laid the foundation of his business on the backs of a series of “low-lifes, like crackheads, meth addicts.” His employees made money looking through people's trash for old bills, credit-card applications and cashed checks, each one filled with precious numbers that can be used to abuse someone's credit.
Lt. Mike Hurley, the chief of the San Diego Police Department's Economic Crimes Unit, said most ID thieves are meth addicts. His colleague, Sgt. Dan Plein, said he once walked into a hotel room filled with people high on meth, sitting around a corkboard, trying to reassemble someone's shredded documents.
“They have nothing but time,” Plein said.
Kaboa, himself a meth user—but, he says, not a junkie—said check forging was only part of his gig. He bought a credit-card maker online, along with the necessary gear to print fake checks and utility bills or other necessary documents. To make the big money, he took out mortgages on residential real estate.
“I'd never go for the $9 [million] or $10 million score,” he said. “If I have Dr. Good Credit, I can just take out a $150,000 loan in his name. Then I do that 10 more times. It goes much smoother.”
The key to the mortgage stunt was to target the largest companies, like “big old Citicorp,” he said.
“If there's a million people working for a company, just go in and ask for Sally Sue Smith, and say she said it was OK,” he said. “And they're, like, ‘Who is Sally Sue Smith? Well, OK, if that's what she told you.'”Kaboa describes himself as black and small in stature. He's 5-foot-10, and in his meth-using days, he weighed 125 pounds. He thinks it was his sunny demeanor that made scamming easy.
“Because they say I have a real bubbly attitude, like white people,” he said. “When I speak over the phone and in person, I really relate and connect to the white person in the real world.”
But the game is changing, Kaboa says. Instead of sifting through trash, ID thieves bribe underpaid clerks in hospitals and real-estate companies to sell them photocopies patient and tenant files. Lt. Hurley says there are all kinds of new ways to steal credit information, from skimming machines placed on credit-card readers to hand-held devices. Kaboa finally got his comeuppance thanks to an alert victim. He used a credit-card number someone had given him to pay a bill. The victim filed a police report, and the investigation led back to Kaboa. When police raided his condo, there were incriminating documents everywhere. It was his second arrest and might have carried a long prison sentence, but he made an agreement with the District Attorney to trade extended community service for prison time. These days Kaboa gives seminars on how not to get scammed. Mainly, he suggests, everyone should shred their documents. Lt. Hurley and his colleagues say to never give out financial information unless you initiate the call. They also say to get regular credit reports.
That last bit is especially important, because Kaboa says there's a new trend in identity theft—keeping the credit good. The new thieves try to take advantage of people with high credit scores and take out loans and credit cards in their name. Using fake bank accounts to filter the money, they milk it slowly. Sometimes the scammer will dump the identity with the credit score higher than when he found it.
“People are so lax these days, criminals usually get away.” Kaboa said. “It's so rare for someone to get caught.”