Whether committing low level scams worth hundreds of dollars or more intricate white-collar schemes netting millions, the criminal mind can be resourceful — especially when two forces join to combine into one.
Take the unique case of former gang member Charles Barksdale and the mother of his child Niesha Jackson. Not your typical Bonnie and Clyde, theirs is a story of two street criminals who both had extensive records, Barksdale’s included convictions for violent crimes and Jackson’s for fictitious checks and false identification, when they hatched a white collar plan to commit fraud by robbing banks in an atypical way.
Rather than wielding guns, the California-based duo masterminded a scheme that included a nationwide network of “runners” who used prepaid credit cards to eventually steal $2.5 million from more than three dozen banks across the country.
“This is the first time that I had seen people who graduated from narcotics, violence and pimping to a million dollar bank fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal told “American Greed: The Fugitives.”
According to court documents, Barksdale was a member of the “G-Mob” gang in Sacramento. He also had ties to the Northern California Hip Hop scene, and even released a song called “Dollaz in My Pocket.”
During 2006 to 2008, the couple lived the good life, full of Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Barksdale talked about it with “American Greed: The Fugitives.”
“It was fruitful. I’m not gonna say it was not fruitful. That’s the perks. That’s the same things the bankers do, but they do it on a bigger level. They getting yachts and airplanes, G5 airplanes and stuff,” Barksdale said. (Watch More:Hear Barksdale’s motivation for the scam.)
But the FBI had a different take.
“He wasn’t buying baseballs and bats for the kids down the street, he was buying expensive watches, luxury cars, expensive dinners and going out and enjoying himself,” said Robert Lasky, FBI assistant special agent in charge for Montana.
Eventually, the law caught up with the couple. Barksdale pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was serving nearly 11 years in federal prison when he recently talked with “American Greed: The Fugitives.”
Jackson also pleaded guilty the charge, but rather than face a maximum 30-year prison sentence, she chose to run and became a fugitive.
The Scam: New Version of an Old Fraud
The popularity of credit cards was no secret. According to the financial trade publication The Nilson Report, consumers transacted $17 trillion on plastic globally in 2010. That same year, credit card fraud losses rose by 10 percent from the previous year to $7.6 billion worldwide, and of that fraud, nearly half occurred in the U.S., the report said.
Fraudsters had attempted cash-advance scams since the late '90s, according to Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association. But around the time Barksdale and Jackson began their scheme in 2006, the way in which scammers committed cash advance fraud shifted.
“Over the last few years the prepaid card market has grown, and anytime you see growth you’re going to see criminals in that market try to take advantage of that growth,” Johnson said. “Perpetrators like Jackson began committing this type of fraud with prepaid credit cards, because they’re easier to obtain versus credit and debit cards, and you can operate more anonymously with them.”
How It Worked: Bank Robbery With Plastic Instead of Guns
According to federal authorities, a middle man working for Barksdale recruited pimps who would find women “runners” to walk into banks, hand a teller a prepaid credit card and request about a $10,000 cash advance.
The card always declined and then it was time for the pitch. The runner would insist she had enough money for the cash advance and ask the teller to call the financial institution to confirm. If the teller took the bait, the runner would then rattle off a 1-800-number for the teller to dial. But rather than reach a legitimate representative, Jackson would be on the other end of the line.
One teller, Meay Santiglia, was working at First Security Bank in Bozeman, Mont., when a runner attempted to scam her and she unknowingly talked with Jackson on the phone.
“She was a fast talker. And she said. 'Um, my client's limit is $10,000 and I can give you the authorization number right now. I will walk you through to manually authorize the transaction,'” Santiglia told “American Greed: The Fugitives.”
Luckily, Santiglia didn’t fall for the scam, but Jackson’s phone skills were convincing enough that 37 banks across at least 10 states lost money to the fraud.
Federal authorities did not say precisely how the codes Jackson used worked.
“Ms. Jackson had some knowledge of bank policies and procedures and she also had a manual that allowed her to discuss how to force the transactions through,” the FBI's Lasky said.
He went on to say that it was the technical expertise of Jackson that made the scam work.
But in the end, she was the one who got away, at least for now, while the father of her child, Barksdale was left sitting in federal prison, contemplating the one thing he’d do differently. (Watch More: Hear how investigators tracked the fraud.)
“Not get caught. That’s easy,” Barksdale said, laughing. “Not get caught. It’s that easy. I wish I didn't get caught. That’s about it, you know.”
The U.S. Marshals were searching for Niesha Jackson who also goes by the names Nesha Howard and Lisa Smith. She's 5'2" and 125 pounds. Segal described her as intelligent and good at changing her appearance. Please contact the Marshals at (916) 930-2030 with tips. Cash rewards were available for information leading to her arrest.
Watch the premiere of Jackson’s case on “American Greed: The Fugitives” Wednesday September 12th at 9 P.M. EDT/PT on CNBC.