View Full Version : MAC Users Get Their Man!

Dave Fleming
12-19-2002, 12:21 PM

December 19, 2002
Mounting an Online Posse

FOR two years, Jason Eric Smith, a 21-year-old sophomore at the University of New Orleans, had been finding good deals on used Macintosh computers and then reselling them on eBay.

Until a week before Thanksgiving, Mr. Smith's small enterprise ran smoothly, yielding just enough to pay the rent. Then a sale went terribly awry, leaving him a victim of a buyer's fraud. And in his outrage he persuaded fellow Mac users to take up his cause, turning themselves into sleuths armed with the Internet's power and reach.

The transaction had seemed routine enough. On Nov. 21, Mr. Smith shipped a new Apple Powerbook by FedEx to someone in Chicago who called himself Steve Matthews and told Mr. Smith in a phone conversation that he was buying the machine for a son in college.

Two days later, Mr. Smith received a cashier's check for $3,052.78. He deposited it and withdrew cash, using it to pay his rent and to rent a car for a Thanksgiving trip. He also bought a new space heater for the apartment he shares with his girlfriend.

He returned from his trip to find a phone message from his bank saying that his account was in a deep hole. The cashier's check had bounced.

Eager to give his customer the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Smith called the same number he had used to reach Mr. Matthews a few days earlier. "In the back of my mind I was thinking the worst but hoping for the best," he recalled. The man who answered the phone sounded like Mr. Matthews. Yet he identified himself as Tony, a cousin of Mr. Matthews. He told Mr. Smith that his relative was away for Thanksgiving but that he would be glad to have Mr. Matthews call him back when he returned.

When no call came, Mr. Smith knew he had been a victim of fraud. The check was counterfeit.

Mr. Smith tried the usual methods of recourse. First he called the Chicago Police Department and was told it would be at least a week before a detective could get back to him.

He sent e-mail to eBay, asking for more detailed contact information for the buyer, whom he knew only by his eBay user name, videopro55, and the name Steve Matthews, evidently fictitious. In reply he received an automatically generated message expressing condolences and suggesting, among other things, that Mr. Smith save all correspondence with the purchaser.

The only phone number Mr. Smith had for the buyer was for a cellphone, and he was not sure how to connect it to a name and address. He called Nextel but was told that for privacy reasons, the carrier could not release any information about the subscriber.

Mr. Smith grew more determined.

A member of the relatively close-knit world of Macintosh users, Mr. Smith recounted his tale of loss at MacRumors.com and other electronic bulletin boards devoted to all things Macintosh.

"I'm out not only my computer," he wrote, "but also the $3,000 and now my finances are in complete disaster area since I had already spent a good deal of the money on Christmas shopping."

In response, Mr. Smith got some sympathy, along with some of the usual finger wagging. Some admonished Mr. Smith for his naïveté, for sending the computer cash on delivery and accepting a cashier's check. Had he never heard of PayPal?

Mr. Smith had in fact used PayPal, the online payment services company. But a trusting fellow by nature, he used C.O.D. and cashier's checks for most of his sales. To vet customers, he relies on eBay's feedback system, where users publicly attest to the trustworthiness of those with whom they have conducted business.

An habitué of MacRumors.com suggested that he use Cell Phone Magic, an online service that for an $85 fee could attach the cellphone to a name and street address. Not only did Mr. Smith get the address, but he even obtained a land-line number and a name: Melvin J. Christmas.

Mr. Smith called the number, and a man with a voice identical to that of "Steve" answered the phone. "I said, 'Look, I know how you are, you know who I am, I'm going to be straight with you - you can try and make good on this or I'm going to do everything I can to catch you,' " Mr. Smith said. "He listened to me and said he didn't know what I was talking about.''

Meanwhile, as clues and details were shared online, a few bulletin board participants said they thought that they, too, had been victims of Mr. Christmas. Some who lived in the Chicago area offered to go to Mr. Christmas's house and take justice into their own hands.

Then Mr. Smith decided to set up another auction in the hope of luring the purchaser back. If need be, he would fly to Chicago himself to confront Mr. Christmas when he took delivery of the package.

Using a different eBay account, Mr. Smith offered the same model of Powerbook, the G4 867. Within three hours, he had an offer from videopro55, but this time with a different mailing address.

When Mr. Smith put the new information out to his online correspondents, one of them, a Chicago resident, replied with several digital images of the neighborhood, the house, the car parked there and its license plate.

Typing in the location at an online mapping site, Mr. Smith also realized that it was not in Chicago proper, but in Markham, a town about 10 miles to the south.

The rest fell into place like an episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.''

When Mr. Smith called the Markham Police Department he was put through to Sgt. Jim Knapp, who was delighted to take the call and offered to make the delivery himself.

On the morning of Dec. 11, Sergeant Knapp donned a FedEx uniform, borrowed a van from FedEx and made the delivery. When Mr. Christmas signed for the package, the officer said, he arrested him.

In a search of the house, Sergeant Knapp said, he found two counterfeit checks for deliveries Mr. Christmas was still expecting.

Mr. Christmas, 38, has been charged with two counts of forgery, and law enforcement authorities say they believe he is part of a ring of criminals in the Chicago area who specialize in using fraudulent funds to buy electronic equipment online. A previously convicted forger, he was freed on $750,000 bail.

Sergeant Knapp was impressed by the work of the online posse that Mr. Smith rounded up. "They all came together and working on this and did an excellent job," he said.

Howard Rheingold, an expert on online communities, has used the term "smart mobs" to refer to such groups - individuals, often strangers to one another, who use a common means of communication like the Web to act collectively. In his book "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" (Perseus Publishing, 2002), Mr. Rheingold writes that such groups emerge "when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation."

Mr. Smith said he was particularly grateful to the Mac users who helped crack the case. "I know in my heart that Mr. Christmas is really a PC guy," he said, only partly in jest.

Sergeant Knapp said that since news of the arrest emerged, he had fielded a stream of calls from people claiming to have been similarly duped.

He said the Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Chicago Police Department were now involved in a wider investigation.

Chris Donlay, an eBay spokesman, said that because both auctions were cut short when the purchaser sent e-mail to Mr. Smith offering to buy the computers outside the eBay site, the company was not directly involved and not in a position to help Mr. Smith or law enforcement.

He is still out the value of the original computer he shipped to Mr. Christmas, which the authorities have yet to recover.

Mr. Smith is not one to let his story go untold. Late last week he posted a lengthy first-person account online (www.remodern.com/caught .html) that was featured at the technology-news site Slashdot.org. Electronic bulletin boards were plastered with kudos for Mr. Smith and self-congratulations for Macintosh users who banded together to seek justice.

"No one steals our Macs and lives!" wrote one. "I LOVE YOU GUYS!!! *group hug for mac users everywhere*" wrote another.

And this week Mr. Smith got a call from an investigator with the Chicago Police Department responding to his first request for help. The investigator "suggested I put together a controlled drop like the one they had read about in the newspaper,'' Mr. Smith said. "I told them that was me, and that was this case."

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[ 12-19-2002, 12:22 PM: Message edited by: Dave Fleming ]

Joe (SoCal)
12-19-2002, 12:35 PM
DAVE!!!!!!!! ARRRRRRRG you stole my thunder I was just about to post the whole story. I actually BELONG to that forum -- yea I hang out at Other places. What a great story you can read the actual thread here http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?s=&threadid=15077&perpage=25&pagenumber=1
Mac Users RULE smile.gif
Actually it shows how a good forum can bring about actual events and help someone out a lesson to be learned. There is a whole article in Today's, NY Times Circuits section.

gunnar I am
12-19-2002, 12:42 PM
aWhat sleuthing abilities? Sonded like something the worthies of the Cicago PD should have been able to handle,or NOT!!! :mad: :mad:

jack grebe
12-19-2002, 12:43 PM
gawd I love a happy ending :D

Joe (SoCal)
12-19-2002, 12:44 PM
Some of the forum members provided Arial photos of the crooks home I just checked my home man scary check it out

Dave Fleming
12-19-2002, 01:02 PM
Dhowman, nothing against trailers but I thought you lived in a circa 1700's home with a big barn out back? tongue.gif
And that story is the one from the NYTimes.

Geeze, between run on sentences and sloppy reading comprehension no wonder Sister Mary of the Big Wooden Ruler was so PO'd at you all the time! :D :D ;)

Joe (SoCal)
12-19-2002, 01:12 PM
O&O West Yup the RV/Trailer lot is at the bottom of the mountain actually a very nice RV/trailer park my house is up at the curve in the road. My mother in law was the first person to say < Big Inhale of cigarette > (cue raspy cigarette voice) You know Joey ya live just up the road from a trailer park cough caugh gag hack " smile.gif

[ 12-19-2002, 01:28 PM: Message edited by: Joe ( Cold Spring on Hudson ) ]

12-19-2002, 05:31 PM
Seriously though, what is the allure of a Mac these days? I haven't used one in 10 years. I couldn't live without "right-clicking" -- do you guys have two button mice now? Just curious.

Nicholas Carey
12-19-2002, 06:18 PM
Originally posted by rustnrot:
Seriously though, what is the allure of a Mac these days? I haven't used one in 10 years. I couldn't live without "right-clicking" -- do you guys have two button mice now? Just curious.Two button mice? Sure, if you want one -- or three-button. Or whatever.

Go down to your local CompUSA (242 Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway, Augusta Georgia) and check 'em out.

Completely new OS, not an upgrade. It's Unix with a human face. Even diehard Unix gurus are switching to it. Read more about OS X at the Apple web site: http://www.apple.com/

it runs your usual apps -- MS Office (it actually runs better than it does on Windows), IE, etc.

And as a plus, there are no known OS X viruses. There are a couple of Applescript worms that Microsoft mail clients (Outlook, Entourage) are susceptable -- it wouldn't be a MS app if it wasn't wide open, would it? But if you use a non-MS mail client such as the built-in Mail app or Eudora, you're pretty much safe.

12-21-2002, 11:59 AM
That's a spooky program Joe. Just for the hell of it I zoomed in on my boyhood paradise. Found the place where our Sea Skiff was docked. See the L shaped pier? The Barj was docked on the short leg of the L, all through my childhood, and later under the tin roof at the top of the marina.


Thanks Joe.

[ 12-21-2002, 12:01 PM: Message edited by: ishmael ]