By Jen Miller
November 28, 2007
The stream of letters Abdallah sent the judge presiding over his case since his arrest in 2001, hint at the answers. In a sense, they reveal as much about him as the crimes he committed. The most telling is a 2004 letter Abdallah wrote from the Federal Holding Facility in Brooklyn. Small spelling mistakes throughout the letter—“no” instead of “know” and “loose” instead of “lose”—suggest Abdallah’s lack of formal education. Yet the handwriting of this high school dropout has a graceful, feminine quality. He crafts his capital letters, particularly the letter “I,” with the same sweeping beauty of his ancestral Arabic. And the tone is respectful and polite. Like every letter he has written the judge, Abdallah opens this one by asking how she is doing and closes it by “once again” thanking her for her time.
The letter’s text, however, reveals a different side of Abdallah, demonstrating the same desperation that landed him in jail. “Please let me out,” he writes in enormous, underlined letters in the center of the second page. “Please take a chance on me.”
These lines look and read like a scream. They reflect the reality of a man who is imprisoned, not just physically, but psychologically, and who, as individuals on both sides of his case agree, was motivated to steal millions not only by greed but by a pathological hunger for success and control.
* * *
When Secret Service nabbed the 32 year-old Abdallah back in 2001, he had already served three jail sentences in the United States for bank and credit card fraud and one sentence in the Virgin Islands for trying to cash a phony $50,000 check, according to articles published in Maxim Magazine and on cbs.com. Ever since his first arrest at the age of 18, Abdallah’s life has been a series of failed attempts to reform. At one point, he even cooperated with police in a fraud-prevention “Crime of the 80’s” video in which he tells the would-be victims, “I just need your name.”
Abdallah always found his way back to crime. After his most recent arrest, authorities discovered that he had been stealing credit card information from the customers at Zaytoons, the Brooklyn restaurant where he worked as a busboy.
And that was small potatoes. During his job a bus boy, Abdallah was also systematically attempting to steal the identities of 217 individuals on the Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans list, prosecutors say. His tactic was something federal prosecutor Jonathan Streeter calls “social engineering,” in which Abdallah gained access to his victims’ accounts by collecting their personal and financial information piece-by-piece, one building on the next.
Working from the computers at the Brooklyn Heights Public Library, Abdallah would find as much information about his victims as was publicly available, such as mother’s maiden names, birthdates or the number of shares held by investors on the Forbes list. He would then chose a victim—like George Soros or Michael Bloomberg—and call up his bank. Tape recordings of many of these calls demonstrate Abdallah’s approach. He would introduce himself to the clerk as his victim’s financial advisor and say something like, “I’ve forgotten the account number.” Then, he would give the clerk whatever basic personal information he had collected about his victim.
Secret Service procured these tapes. According to Secret Service public information officer, Michael Seremetis, financial institutions are required to report suspicious activities to them as well as the FBI. The New York Secret Service has a strong electronic crimes task force and, according to Seremetis, a strong relationship with the large financial institutions, hence their involvement on the case.
Streeter said that the clerk might only give Abdallah one small piece of information in return, such as the account balance. But Abdallah could then use this new information to find out even more about the account on the next call. And there was always a next call.
“He’d get the point where was convincing people on the phone that he was ‘the guy,’” Streeter said. “He’d get one account number and then use that to get another account number.”
The anonymity of the large financial institutions Abdallah was dealing with, such as Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo, also worked in his favor, prosecutors say. For a long time, nobody was suspicious, because he would speak with a different clerk during each call. And even if the clerk did become suspicious, there was no way to determine who Abdallah really was or where he was calling from. During the two years he spent trying to access the 217 accounts, he spoke with banks in New York, California and even as far away as Australia.
“Operation CEO,” as the Secret Service dubbed Abdallah’s Forbes 400 scheme, wasn’t the only racket he was running. At the same time he’d embarked on a second project to steal credit card numbers. Abdallah enlisted his brother Joseph, who convinced an employee at one online calling company to collect clients’ credit card numbers. Abdallah would then order merchandise with the stolen accounts—gift certificates and electronic equipment used for forging checks and stamping credit cards—and have them delivered via courier to pick-up locations in Manhattan. In the end, Abdallah stole approximately $78,000 worth of merchandise in this manner.
As Abdallah closed in on his victims’ larger accounts, suspicion grew. Streeter explained that with enough personal information, Abdallah was able to create fake accounts in his victim’s names. He would then attempt to have the money transferred from the legitimate account to the fraudulent one. But brokerage firms would always double check, calling the account managers to verify the transaction. And the manager would say no.
In one instance, Abdallah got a rebate check from Canon. He forged the check, scanned it into a computer and then changed the dollar amounts and the payer. He then tried to deposit the check, but Cannon discovered that the dollar amount on the check was far greater than the sums that were usually withdrawn from the rebate account. The money never went through.
“So he’d be stopped,” Streeter said. “It was often late in the process—and a little frighteningly late.”
The more personal information Abdallah collected from his victims, the more money he tried to move. And while all this was going on, Abdallah kept his job as a busboy. He had yet to touch a single penny from Operation CEO and the $78,000 he stole was in the form of merchandise, not money. He was making $350 dollars a week at Zaytoons. Simply put, he couldn’t afford to quit.
* * *
Lee Ginsberg, criminal defense attorney, sits in his Lower Manhattan eating a chicken salad sandwich. It’s well past lunchtime. His desk is a mess of paper, with more files stacked in corners and around the office perimeter. The nameplate on his desk looks as though it hasn’t been dusted in weeks. On the walls hang vibrant court drawings of the lawyer in action: Ginsberg with his arms held out wide before the jury; Ginsberg questioning witnesses on the stand.
Ginsberg has been a criminal defense lawyer for 35 years and a partner in his own practice for 24. From the looks of his office—in fact, from the looks of Ginsberg—he’s not only busy, but tired. His forehead is wrinkled, his voice is hoarse. Every few minutes, he presses his long fingers into his eyes and rubs. He has represented Abdallah four times.
“Most cases involving fraud and theft, they want to use the money for their own purposes. They steal $10 million and built a house and have gold faucets.” Ginsberg says. But he says Abdallah, “doesn’t have anything.”
Ginsberg describes Abdallah as engaging, likable, and smart. “I know everything about him and his life,” Ginsberg says. “And I like him. I want to help him. I just think that some of the issues he’s dealing with are extremely difficult to get resolved.”
By issues, Ginsberg means both Abdallah’s upbringing and his mental illness. Ginsberg says Abdallah born in Detroit and moved to Brooklyn Heights with his family, who had relatives in the grocery business there. He had a strained family life. His father was seriously injured in car accident in 1996. His mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and was ill or hospitalized for good part of Abdallah’s life. At Abdallah’s trial, one of his brothers told the judge that their mother had a special relationship with Abraham and that she died of a broken heart over his ruined life. Ginsberg says that every doctor who treated Abdallah agrees that these events had a “profound effect” on his psychological development.
And, according to court records, Abdallah suffers from bipolar disorder, depression and extreme anxiety. In court, the judge asked him if he was on any drugs and he enumerated a long list of the prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs he takes daily. “I’m not a psychologist,” Ginsberg says, “but it’s clear to me that he’s got a very substantial and severe compulsive disorder.”
Ginsberg never tried to argue that Abdallah was innocent but he hoped his client’s psychological situation would win him a shorter sentence. “It’s part of his need or desire to play the game out,” Ginsberg says, “and the game is more important than the end result.”
It was the game that got Abdallah in the end. As he tried to move larger and larger sums, secret service and NYPD began to notice a pattern. The agencies were working separately for a while, unaware that the other was on Abdallah’s trail. Then, in Jan. 2001, a final rash act brought them together. On Jan. 11, Abdallah called Merrill Lynch, posing as Thomas Siebel, founder of the software company Siebel Systems. He inquired about a $10 million check that he expected to be deposited into a fraudulent account he’d created in Siebel’s name. When the Merrill investigator contacted Fleet Bank, where the check originated, it was found to be counterfeit.
Over the next two months, Secret Service and NYPD tracked Abdallah, uncovering his credit card fraud scheme and the fraudulent accounts he’d opened at banks across the country. In March 2001 they had enough evidence to set up a sting. They learned that Abdallah had ordered $25,000 worth of equipment to manufacture credit cards, paid for with stolen credit cards. Detectives had UPS hold the package at its distribution center in the Bronx and then intercepted the messenger hired to deliver it. Posing as the messenger, a Secret Service investigator delivered the package to Abdallah in Brooklyn. He was arrested at the handoff, but not before attempting to flee in his car. A Secret Service agent stopped him by jumping onto his sunroof.
At the time of his arrest, Abdallah was found to have the Oct. 9, 2000 issue of Forbes with the 400 Richest People in America list, handwritten notes with the social security numbers, addresses and investment accounts of individuals in the magazine, and lists of credit card numbers and other personal info of hundreds of people.
Abdallah was charged on 12 counts of fraud including fraud by wire, mail fraud, fraud with identification documents, conspiracy to commit, and committing credit card fraud. Though none of the money came through, Abdallah’s 11-year sentence was based on how much money he would have gotten had Operation CEO been successful. That sum was $80 million.
* * *
Ginsberg rejects the suggestion that Abdallah was trying to get caught or that arrogance lead him to try and move the $10 million at Merrill Lynch. He believes that Abdallah’s activities were about control. “He doesn’t have control over any other aspect of his life,” Ginsberg says.
Abdallah’s brother Tony gave a similar statement to the court. “He has wasted and wilted many years of his life chasing an illusive dream and battling his own demons,” Tony Abdallah said during his brother’s trial. He told the judge that he’d been visiting Abdallah in jail every week and observing his mental state. “I’m not asking you to feel sorry for him, but his problem has unraveled out of control. He’s never gotten the help he needed.”
In fact, since his 2001 incarceration, every letter Abdallah writes the judge is a plea for the psychiatric care he believes will help him kick his compulsive criminal activities. Seven years into his sentence, Abdallah is still begging, with little result. Among the sea of papers on Ginsberg’s desk is Abdallah’s most recent letter, in which he asks to be moved from his Ohio prison to one that has better psychiatric care.
“When you’re talking about this type of condition,” Ginsberg says, “You need intensive and ongoing therapy. And that’s not what Bureau of Prisons is equipped to do.”
Even federal prosecutor Jonathan Streeter expresses a level of sympathy for Abdallah’s situation. But for Streeter, this doesn’t change the bottom line. “I have no objection to him getting more psychological treatment,” Streeter says, “but he must be removed from streets. God forbid he hits the big pay day.”
In one of his first hearings in October 2002, Abdallah asked the judge if he could “make a small statement.” The judge granted Abdallah permission and he stood up before the court and his siblings who had come to support him. “If there is anyone on this earth that wants this to stop, I do,” Abdallah said about his compulsive criminal behavior. “I wish I could say this was all about money. At least I would have a reason in my mind for ruining my entire life.”