By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By 1998, when Dortch and his crew started their investigation, stolen credit card reports were continuing to mount in San Francisco, as were small busts for theft that are usually pleaded down to probation sentences without much jail time.
Mail was not disappearing from collection boxes in the usual mad grab by speed freaks looking for checks and personal identification information. Only credit cards were being taken, and the stolen cards were being authorized for use by the banks that issued them, even though the owners of the cards should have been the only people able to make them work.
Most of the stolen cards came from wealthy, rural neighborhoods in the Bay Area, including Mill Valley and Los Altos Hills. They were used to buy electronics, designer clothing, and jewelry from a handful of department and computer stores. And all of the people caught with stolen credit cards were Russian immigrants who lived in San Francisco or San Mateo counties.
And the identity thieves were bragging about their ability to elude serious capture. Some even claimed to have been in Russian prisons that made the Bay Area's county jails seem like country clubs. They were willing to risk the occasional felony.
Others were simply persistent.
For months through the end of 1997 and into early 1998, residents of Los Altos Hills and Woodside reported seeing strangers cruising the area. One afternoon, Patricia Hamann saw an unfamiliar man standing at the cluster of mailboxes near her Woodside home. He appeared to be looking through the mail; she asked him what he was doing. The stranger -- Robert Nikolayev -- replied in broken English that his boss had assigned him to pass out supermarket fliers and held up a pile of newspaper advertising inserts as proof of his mission. After a brief conversation, he got into a nearby car, where a woman was waiting for him, and drove down the road to another cluster of mailboxes. A week or so later, Hamann saw Nikolayev again at the mailboxes. Though Hamann hadn't noticed anything missing from her mail, the scene seemed suspicious. She phoned police.
In January 1998, San Mateo sheriff's deputies staking out the neighborhood saw a Toyota pull up in front of a small row of mailboxes; one of its occupants quickly handled some mail from the boxes and then drove away. The deputies stopped the car and found Nikolayev, Kogan, and a woman inside.
A week later, deputies showed up at Nikolayev's apartment on Vicente Street in San Francisco's Sunset District. When no one answered the door, the cops kicked it in as Nikolayev was coming out of the kitchen. A neighbor found two stolen credit cards on the ground underneath Nikolayev's kitchen window. Nikolayev was arrested on charges of receiving stolen property and released on bail.
The next month, Nikolayev and two accomplices went shopping for computer equipment with stolen credit cards. Court documents say the three talked about laptop computers for a while and eventually decided to purchase one. One of Nikolayev's accomplices handed the store clerk a credit card; the other stood near the door of the store, talking on a cell phone.
A customer who was in line remembered the clerk having problems getting the credit card to work and asking for identification. The accomplice said that his wife had taken his wallet, including his identification, to shop at a new Target store down the street. This scenario didn't seem to make sense; the Target had not yet opened for business.
Nikolayev, meanwhile, was walking back and forth between the checkout counter and the woman on the cell phone. The witness behind them also heard Nikolayev tell the accomplice that he had other credit cards if this one wasn't working, but the accomplice was adamant that this credit transaction should work. (A suspicious credit card agent on the other end of the call for authorization had apparently asked the store clerk to stall after noticing that the same man had purchased computer equipment from another store only hours before.)
Nikolayev and the woman on the cell phone left the store. Shortly afterward, with his credit card rejected, the shopper fled the store, getting into a rented silver van with Nikolayev waiting behind the wheel. San Mateo police stopped the van a short distance away on Highway 92, finding computer equipment purchased with a stolen credit card earlier in the day inside.
Still, this was not the end of Nikolayev's crime career.
A few months later, after Nikolayev had again been released on bail, he was charged with stealing mail in Marin County with another accomplice. And then a Redwood City neighbor identified Nikolayev as the man he saw rifling through mail near his home, along with a woman he identified as Diana Ilyagueva.
Finally, in February 1999, Robert Nikolayev was found guilty of felony charges of burglary and receiving stolen property; he was sentenced to nine months in jail and three years' probation.
Meanwhile, postal inspectors began to watch other Russian suspects around the Bay Area.
Once in possession of a couple of pieces of personal information -- a Social Security number and birth date, for example -- a thief can drain bank accounts, run up credit card balances, and wreak the kind of general financial havoc that can take years to correct.