News and Press Releases

black market travel agents

Three more defendants plead guilty to multi-million dollar fraud

conspirators used stolen identities, credit cards
to purchase airline tickets

July 7, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that three more defendants pleaded guilty in federal court today to their roles in a conspiracy among black market travel agents who used the stolen identities of thousands of victims as part of a multi-million dollar fraud scheme to purchase airline tickets for their customers.

Waiki Pryor, 30, of Richmond, Calif., Norman Johnson, 36, of Inglewood, Calif., and Edwon Simmons, 34, of Chicago, Ill., pleaded guilty in separate appearances before Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan, Jr. In addition to the conspiracy, Pryor and Simmons pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft. Simmons also pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal law enforcement agents by instructing one of his customers to lie to the agents in an effort to conceal the conspiracy.

Pryor, Johnson and Simmons are among 38 defendants from across the United States who were charged in a series of six separate, but related, indictments. These separate criminal conspiracies resulted in an estimated total loss of more than $20 million to numerous domestic airline companies, financial institutions, other merchants and individual credit and debit cardholders. A total of 29 defendants have now pleaded guilty and two defendants have been sentenced.

Pryor and Simmons, who were charged in separate but related cases, both admitted that they acted as black market travel agents. They used stolen identity information, including stolen credit/debit cards from hundreds of victims in dozens of states, to purchase airline reservations for their customers totaling between $1 million and $2.5 million. Pryor, Simmons, and other black market travel agents worked together to further the scheme. They shared stolen credit/debit card information, and would ask each other for assistance in purchasing fraudulent reservations for their customers.

Black market travel agents profited from the scheme by purchasing the stolen credit/debit card information of the identity theft victims at a nominal cost, then using the stolen information to purchase the reservations online at airline Web sites. Simmons concealed his role by frequently using, without authorization, the unsecured wireless Internet network of a neighbor, and the publicly available Internet access at a Kinko’s store. Black market travel agents then sold the confirmation codes of the airline reservations to their customers. Pryor was often referred to as the “50 Dollar Man” or “75 Dollar Man” because he charged $50 or $75 per reservation during his time as a black market travel agent.

Pryor and Simmons generally purchased reservations close to the time of departure, in order to increase the likelihood that the airlines, credit card or debit card companies, or identity theft victims would not detect the fraudulent purchases and have the reservations canceled. As a result, their passengers could often complete their respective trips before the stolen credit or debit card used to pay for the flight was detected as being compromised.

Pryor admitted that he was the leader of the conspiracy that operated in the Oakland, Calif., area. Pryor used more than 2,000 sets of stolen credit/debit cards to purchase thousands of airline reservations. Pryor became a prolific black market travel agent because of his passenger network, his large supply of stolen credit/debit card information, and his discount prices for airline reservations.

Pryor obtained stolen credit and debit card information from a number of sources, including co-defendant Delano Rutty, 27, of Palm Beach, Fla. Rutty obtained stolen credit card numbers from co-defendant Crystal Green, 23, of Miramar, Fla. Both Rutty and Green have pleaded guilty to their roles in the conspiracy.

The success of Pryor’s scheme was in large part based on the effectiveness of his referral sources. Co-defendants Johnson and Abdullah Gardner, 36, of Inglewood, Calif., were among those who referred passengers seeking discount airline reservations to Pryor. Gardner has also pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy. Johnson admitted today that he knew Pryor would book airline tickets for his customers using stolen identity information and stolen credit/debit cards.

Simmons obtained stolen credit/debit card information from co-defendant Maurice Beecham, 38, of Chicago, Ill. Beecham, who has pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy, obtained the stolen credit/debit card information from a source in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Under the terms of today’s plea agreements, the government and both Pryor and Simmons agree to request a sentence of seven years in federal prison without parole, which is the statutory maximum sentence for the conspiracy and aggravated identity theft charges. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.

Under federal statutes, Johnson is subject to a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.

These cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Cowles. They were investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Overland Park, Kan., Police Department, and the Kansas City Secret Service Task Force, and with the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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