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2 Men Plead Guilty in Cut-Rate Airline Ticket Scam

June 03, 1994|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Technology has made possible many things, as any con man can attest. For instance, thanks to science you can now steal almost anything: phone numbers, credit, whole identities.

But turning technology into ill-gotten gain still requires the same old-fashioned and risk-prone grifting skills. Which is how two Los Angeles area scalpers of cut-rate plane tickets ended up convicted this week on a long-running, multimillion-dollar scam involving stolen phones, faked identities, credit card numbers pinched from the trash at a rental car firm, and a phony claim that they were doctors whose transplant patients needed emergency transportation.

In separate cases, Keith Wayne Thompson, 39, of Compton and Roderick Shawn Williams, 34, of Lakewood pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to 12 and 11 counts, respectively, of wire fraud.

Prosecutors said the two unemployed men had been scalping stolen plane tickets as far back as 1987, and their arrests were the result of a long-term investigation by the U.S. Secret Service into the unauthorized use of credit cards.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Larson said the two men knew each other, and ran virtually identical operations, but did not appear to be in business together. Their network of operatives, runners and middlemen was extensive, Larson said.

Although the counts to which they pleaded guilty amounted only to a little over $26,000 in fraud, the two men and their associates were running a variety of scams that cost the airlines as much as $13.5 million in the past six years, Larson said, citing Secret Service and airline estimates.

"They spent most of the money they made on cars and luxuries," Larson said. "So they don't have a big bank account with which they can make restitution. The money is gone, and the airlines and travel agents and credit card companies are left holding the bag."

Larson said that Thompson, who has prior convictions for forgery and credit card fraud, obtained discount airline tickets by calling travel agencies near hospitals, using one of several cellular phones that had either been stolen or encoded with a "cloned" computer chip bearing someone else's telephone billing information.

Posing as "Dr. Tom Powers," Larson said, "(Thompson) would tell the agent that my patient so-and-so has a transplant operation, and needs to fly immediately."

Then, Larson said, Thompson would give the agent the "patient's" credit card number over the phone--reading the name, number and expiration date from a credit slip he or one of his operatives had pilfered, usually from a trash bin at an Avis Rent-a-Car outlet in Los Angeles.

Rarely was the "doctor" questioned, Larson said.

Then, he said, Thompson would resell the tickets for as much as 70% of face value. His clients were people who had heard of him by word of mouth.

Thompson and Williams ran little risk of capture because their customers used the tickets before the credit card holders realized they had been wrongly charged, the prosecutor said. Investigators had difficulty tracing the sale because the names and the phone numbers they had left with travel agents belonged to someone else.

Eventually, the number of complaints involving the scam drew the attention of the Secret Service, Larson said, and with the aid of telephone wiretaps and surveillance, the two were caught and they confessed.

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