NEWPORT BEACH — Beware when going online.
In what police say is a growing trend among computer criminals, four Newport Beach youths allegedly hoodwinked some America Online subscribers into disclosing their credit card numbers, which the youngsters then used to make about $100 in purchases.
The youths, all students at Corona del Mar High School, were arrested by Newport Beach police, who accused them of sending a message to users of America Online, falsely advising that the service had suffered a system breakdown and asking that they resubmit their credit card numbers.
Because all four are juveniles, police did not identify the 15- to 17-year-olds they arrested Feb. 20. The youths face possible charges of conspiracy to commit petty theft, said Sgt. John Desmond of the Newport Beach police. They were released into their parents' custody.
Police have turned the case over to county juvenile authorities, who will decide whether to press charges.
Desmond said the youths were tracked down after a man in Vacaville, who had responded to the youngsters' message, reported to Vacaville police that someone in the Newport Beach area had made about $70 worth of unauthorized telephone calls and catalog purchases using his credit card number.
Using a home computer, the students sent a message through America Online to all its subscribers, Desmond said.
They then used the credit card numbers they received to call a telephone talk line, purchase mail-order catalog items, and to pay their own America Online bills, Desmond said.
Police said they tracked down the youths through an America Online account number that appeared on another victim's credit card statement, and a call-tracing system used by the telephone talk-line company.
"It was pretty easy to find them," Desmond said. "They're smart enough to know how to commit the crime, but not smart enough to avoid getting caught.
"People should be aware that this kind of thing happens more frequently these days," Desmond said. "A lot of these computer crimes aren't even reported to the police.
"It could be even bigger than we think."