Leader in Credit Card Fraud Scheme Sentenced to Over 8 Years in Prison
For More Than Two Years Conspirators Traveled From State to State Making Purchases Using Stolen Credit and Bank Card Information
Baltimore, Maryland – U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar sentenced Christopher V. Johnson, age 24, formerly of New York, today to 102 months in prison, followed by five years of supervised release, for bank fraud conspiracy and aggravated identity theft. Judge Bredar also entered an order requiring Johnson to pay restitution of $155,515.33.
The sentence was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein; Special Agent in Charge Andre Watson of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); Special Agent in Charge Brian Murphy of the United States Secret Service - Baltimore Field Office; U.S. Marshal Johnny Hughes; Colonel William M. Pallozzi, Superintendent of the Maryland State Police; Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler, Jr.; Easton Police Department Chief David A. Spencer; Anne Arundel County Police Chief Tim Altomare; and Talbot County State’s Attorney Scott G. Patterson.
According to Johnson’s plea agreement, from at least the winter of 2012 through July 2014, Johnson conspired with Wanisha D. Coates, Lakriesha Coates, Domenique Miller, Sheardwood Michel, Shamika Earle and others to create counterfeit credit cards, using stolen or otherwise compromised credit and debit card numbers belonging to others. They encoded the stolen account information onto credit and stored value cards which were then used to obtain money and credit from banks and credit unions. These proceeds were used to buy consumer products, including designer shoes by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin, and designer clothes from Neiman Marcus.
On November 2, 2012, Johnson and Wanisha and Lakriesha Coates used altered credit cards to make fraudulent purchases at a Target in Fairfax, Virginia. Johnson was arrested and convicted in Fairfax County, Virginia for credit card fraud. Wanisha Coates was also arrested and charged in Fairfax County, but failed to appear for her court hearing. A bench warrant was issued for her arrest.
On April 2, 2013, Johnson and Wanisha Coates were stopped by a Maryland State Trooper for a traffic violation in Centreville, Maryland. The Trooper smelled burnt marijuana and searched the vehicle, seizing several gift cards, credit cards and “ReloadIt” stored value cards that were altered and rewritten with compromised account information.
On January 11, 2014 Easton Police officers arrested Johnson and Miller after they tried to buy multiple gift cards at a Staples store in Easton. A number of credit cards fraudulently re-encoded with stolen or compromised account information were seized, along with a small amount of marijuana. Miller advised police that his girlfriend was staying at an Easton motel. Officers arrived at the motel room and were overwhelmed by the odor of raw and burnt marijuana as they entered. Present inside the room were the girlfriend and Wanisha Coates. Coates identified herself as “Wanda C. Redd,” who is in fact her mother. Officers seized 44 credit or stored value cards, many of which had been fraudulently altered. Johnson had used one of the fraudulently altered cards to make over $200 in purchases at a drug store in Easton. Of the 108 cards seized from Johnson, Miller and Coates on January 11, approximately 88 were found to be rewritten with stolen credit card/bank card account information. Many of the cards had been altered so that the last four digits appearing on the front of the card matched the last four digits of the stolen account number rewritten on the magnetic strip of the card.
Johnson was released from custody in Talbot County on January 12, 2014. That same day, someone logged-in to Johnson’s account and unsuccessfully attempted to remotely erase the date on Johnson’s iPhone, which was in the custody of law enforcement.
On March 13, 2014, Anne Arundel County Police responded to a call from a man at a motel in Linthicum, Maryland, later identified as Johnson, who said he had been cut in the face with a knife by Wanisha Coates. Police found Johnson and Coates outside of their motel room attempting to leave. Police seized approximately 27 credit and gift cards, some visibly altered, and a device for reading, erasing and writing data on magnetic strips of credit cards. At least 13 of the seized credit cards and gift cards had been reencoded with account information that did not match the numbers appearing on the front of the cards.
Between June 30 and July 7, 2014, Johnson, Michel and another conspirator made numerous purchases in New Jersey using fraudulently reencoded credit and stored value cards. On July 14, 2014, Johnson was driving in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, when a police officer attempted to pull him over. When the officer got out of his patrol car, Johnson pulled away and police gave chase. After Johnson struck a small tree, police ordered him out of the vehicle, but Johnson accelerated in reverse, sideswiping a police vehicle and drove for several blocks before bailing out of the car. Johnson ran through several back yards before being arrested by officers. Johnson was charged and officers seized marijuana, a tablet computer, two cell phones, a receipt for a $624 wire transfer, and numerous credit and gift cards, at least one of which was visibly tampered with. Johnson’s New Jersey state charges are still pending.
On July 23, 2014 the U.S. Marshals Service Regional Fugitive Task Force located Coates, who had fled from federal pretrial supervision in June 2014, at a motel in Belleville, New Jersey. Task force officers arrived at the motel room, which smelled strongly of burnt marijuana, and arrested Coates. Officers seized marijuana, a credit card embossing device, electronics, and approximately 100-150 stored value cards or credit cards, some of which had been fraudulently re-encoded with stolen credit card information.
On March 10, 2015, while Johnson was an inmate at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore, he made several calls to Earle. Johnson was being held there pending his initial appearance and arraignment on his federal charges. During the calls, which were recorded, Johnson asked Earle if she was with Michel, and if she would get him money orders for his commissary account. During the call, Johnson told Earle to purchase the money orders with gift cards obtained using stolen credit card account information. Earle advised that she already had three $100 money orders purchased with fraudulently obtained gift cards. Johnson asked Earle to try to get another gift card purchased with stolen credit card information, in order to get him another money order. In a later call, Johnson asked Earle to get him money orders for $85 because they cleared into his commissary account faster. Earle confirmed that Michel was with her and they would get additional money orders for Johnson.
Earle and Michel were arrested on March 12, 2015, after engaging in numerous fraudulent transactions using cards encoded with stolen credit card information at a department store in Towson, Maryland. At the time of their arrest, Michel possessed 26 fraudulently reencoded cards and Earle possessed 15 fraudulently reencoded cards. Earle also had four money orders in Johnson’s name – three for $100 and one for $85. The money orders had all been purchased with prepaid debit cards that had been purchased using stolen credit card information.
The loss attributable to Johnson during the course of the conspiracy is between $120,000 and $200,000, and involves more than 250 victims.
Co-conspirator Sheardwood H. Michel, age 26, of St. Albans, New York, and Shamika C. Earle, age 25, of Deer Park, New York, pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme and are scheduled to be sentenced on October 26 and 27, respectively.
Wanisha D. Coates, age 26, and Lakriesha Coates, age 25, both of Baltimore, Domenique R. Miller, age 21, of Newnan, Georgia, previously pleaded guilty to their participation in the scheme and were sentenced to four years in prison, a year and a day in prison, and time served, respectively.
The Maryland Identity Theft Working Group has been working since 2006 to foster cooperation among local, state, federal, and institutional fraud investigators and to promote effective prosecution of identity theft schemes by both state and federal prosecutors. This case, as well as other cases brought by members of the Working Group, demonstrates the commitment of law enforcement agencies to work with financial institutions and businesses to address identity fraud, identify those who compromise personal identity information, and protect citizens from identity theft.
Today’s announcement is part of efforts underway by President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) which was created in November 2009 to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it’s the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions and other organizations. Since the inception of FFETF in November 2009, the Justice Department has filed more than 12,841 financial fraud cases against nearly 18,737 defendants including nearly 3,500 mortgage fraud defendants. For more information on the task force, visit www.stopfraud.gov.
United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein commended the HSI Baltimore, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Easton Police Department, Maryland State Police, Anne Arundel County Police Department, Fairfax (Virginia) County Police Department, Talbot County State’s Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Marshals Service Regional Fugitive Task Force for their work in the investigation and related prosecution. Mr. Rosenstein praised the Fairfax County (Virginia) Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and Lyndhurst (New Jersey) Police Department for their assistance in the investigation and prosecution. Mr. Rosenstein thanked Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Myers, who prosecuted the case.