The Russian Card Game

A peek inside a new form of Russian organized crime and an ingenious method of turning credit card mailings into large amounts of cash

And that was that. One phone call with the name and address of a card owner (taken from the mailer around a stolen card), a deposit of Biosearch's $90 fee at the bank, and the firm produced a Social Security number and date of birth for the card owner. Armed with that information, a thief like Kogan would call the credit card company, which would authorize the card for use (without the call having come from the home phone of record, another way of automatically authorizing the card).

Coonan soon began reporting to federal agents each time the account was used, and by whom, according to court records.

The Biosearch account, investigators say, was originally opened by a man who was arrested several times during the mid- to late 1990s on theft and assault charges in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, most related to alcohol. Investigators say the man liked to brag about his business in bars populated by Russian immigrants on the west side of San Francisco. Also, he had the outward trappings of success, including expensive cars and clothing, and appeared to have connections; he could, it became known, make stolen credit cards work.

The aura the man built around himself, investigators say, helped to popularize the credit card theft business in the Russian crime community. Actually, though, how this particular thief learned to activate stolen credit cards was a less-than-impressive story. It was a story in which dumb luck and pathetic romance played leading roles.

The start of the story involves the man's arrest, in 1996 on a charge he'd assaulted his girlfriend. After the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, he returned home to find that the girlfriend had left. Desperate to find her, the man opened the San Francisco Yellow Pages, apparently looking for a private investigator, and found an advertisement for Biosearch, the San Antonio firm. The company supposedly provided enough information to the man to locate his lost love -- and to help him conceive the idea at the heart of the Russian credit card game.

By 1999, the lovelorn credit card thief was in state prison, having pleaded guilty to felony theft charges in San Mateo County. Federal investigators allege that he gave his Biosearch account to two men, one of whom has since left the country. The other, they believe, is Mikhail Moiseev, who they allege authorized stolen credit cards for other thieves and eventually became a crime partner of Igor Kogan.

Along with the plethora of MasterCards and Visas stolen from Bay Area mailboxes, postal inspectors noticed that a great many Macy's Department Store cards were being stolen. A number of these cards had been used to purchase $500 gift certificates at Macy's, which could, in turn, be used to buy merchandise in a way that was nearly as untraceable as if it were cash.

One afternoon, a federal agent followed one of his suspects in the credit card case to the Macy's store at Union Square in downtown San Francisco, where he recognized a woman who got out of the car and entered the building through a door marked "Employee Entrance." Inna Zeldovich, the woman who entered the store, was no stranger to law enforcement. Zeldovich at one point was evicted from a condominium in San Bruno after essentially squatting there under a sublease arrangement that the landlord had not approved, and then ceasing to pay the rent. (In fact, court records show that when investigators followed her to work at Macy's, her wages were still being garnished to satisfy that landlord's claim.)

At the direction of federal agents, Macy's security force directed its store cameras on Zeldovich, who was working as a clerk. The cameras allegedly caught her activating stolen Macy's cards from her cash register and selling gift certificates to accomplices who were using stolen credit cards. She was indicted in federal court along with Moiseev, Kogan, and Ilyagueva, and last month pleaded guilty to conspiracy and unlawfully using personal information to gain access to credit.

One more piece of the Russian credit theft puzzle had been put in place. And solving that puzzle proved fruitful beyond just capturing Bay Area criminals. "Our goal was to identify who the bad guys were, what their MO [mode of operation] was, and try to find out things to make use of that MO in other areas," says Dortch.

"In a lot of variations, it's the same [pattern] outside of the Bay Area as well. Basically, when we had the intelligence that we got off of this crew, it gave us insight into how these crimes are being committed."

But as you read this sentence, someone else is almost certainly stealing a credit card somewhere in the Bay Area. Despite all that was learned chasing this particular network of thieves, the epidemic continues. "They're only limited by their imagination," Dortch says.

And their nerve.

In May 2001, a posse of postal inspectors, FBI agents, and local police showed up at the crack of dawn at Igor Kogan's parents' home in San Bruno, where they found and arrested a sleepy Kogan still in his skivvies. Simultaneously, Diana Ilyagueva and Inna Zeldovich were also arrested. Moiseev was taken into custody a few months later.

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