DETROIT - Experts say $50 billion is stolen through identity theft every year in the United States, a criminal revenue stream that has caught the attention of violent street gang members who are willing to kill to get in on the massive illicit profits.
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan is exposing a Metro Detroit gang and its leader, known as the Million-Dollar Man.
Identity theft is largely thought of as a crime that takes place when people use their credit cards at a restaurant, and while that can be true, it's also linked to the deadly war going on between gangs over banking information.
The million-dollar man is Charles Mason, a gang member who is perhaps Metro Detroit's most prolific credit card thief. He's responsible for more than 3,000 stolen accounts, including one victim who lost $69,000, according to federal documents obtained by the Local 4 Defenders.
Mason uses the money on lavish spending sprees at high-end stores at the mall and to jet off to Florida vacations that included courtside seats at an NBA basketball game, officials said. Feds said he's also bought thousands of dollars' worth of electronics and tennis shoes.
"They might think it's a wonderful lifestyle when they're in it because you can take your trips to Florida. You can go to South Beach. You can go to the basketball game. You can buy as many pairs of shoes as you want, and they think they're just living pretty high," U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider said.
Mason was living high, but he was also making mistakes. He'd been caught over and over, including arrests in Taylor, Southfield, Southgate and Howell. But each individual arrest was treated as a minor property crime with little consequence for Mason.
As his gang stole more identities, they made a lot more money and began to brag on social media.
"They're showing how much money they're making," Schneider said. "Sometimes they're showing their guns. They're actually exporting their violence through the internet."
Gang members started buying stolen credit card accounts on the darknet, and soon, they had more credit cards than people to shop, and the money was rolling in.
As Mason's fellow gang members bragged about all the money they were making, rivals decided to try to take them out.
"The rival gangs will see that, and they will become upset because they're not making enough money," Schneider said. "Then there's crossfire and, in fact, we had a 5-year-old girl shot in the head who was caught in the crossfire of one of these gangs, one of these identity theft gangs. They're shooting at each other to capture each other's money."
Identity theft in Metro Detroit transformed from a property crime to a violent crime.
"It's a misnomer for anybody to say that identity theft is a nonviolent crime," Schneider said. "That's not true, because the people who are committing the crimes are then engaging in violence. They're engaging in drive-by shootings. They're engaging in attempted murder or murder in order to satisfy their criminal objectives."
While Mason was crisscrossing the country, living large on other people's money, the U.S. attorney's office was putting a plan together to put his out of business for good.
"These credit card offenses, they're racketeering offenses, and when we can attach those to your criminal activities, you're looking at sentences that could be decades in federal prison," Schneider said.
Federal officials said there are thousands of innocent victims having their bank accounts compromised, and now violence is spilling into the streets. Identity theft in Southeast Michigan can earn very serious federal charges, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
"Well, we're trying to send a message," Schneider said. "When you see that guy who looks like he's rich because he's made money off of illicit, unlawful activities, you won't be seeing him too much longer. That's the message."
Mason was facing the possibility of decades behind bars if convicted, so he cut a deal and was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison.
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