Awards & Recognition






  Reluctant Farmer


By Nancy Raven Smith


            Beverly Hills—where the scent of money is the must-have perfume and, like blood in the water, the slightest whiff attracts sharks.
            At the moment, I'm eating at a trendy Asian fusion restaurant a block away from Rodeo Drive. My spicy shrimp dumplings and miso soup are excellent. I like the soup so much, I'm even wearing it dribbled down the front of my best white blouse. This is not an unusual occurrence for me. If restaurants would just supply bibs instead of napkins, I would save a lot on my cleaning bills.
            Sadly, even in this nice restaurant, there is a nasty fish, and I don't mean on the menu. I'd classify him as a piranha. A piranha is a shark wanna-be. Those are my bread and butter . . . or more appropriately, my fish and chips.
            This one is a young waiter named Bruce. He hasn't the skills or the brains to ever move into the deep end of the pool with the real man-eaters, but he still needs to be stopped.
            I watch as he accepts a credit card from one of three trophy wives seated in a window booth. The women wear the latest designer labels with their expensive boobs artfully semi exposed. At the moment, they are totally focused on checking out each other's baby shower gifts. Their irritating squeals of delight echo throughout the restaurant.
            The woman paying for lunch will be making a different sound when she sees the next bill for the credit card she's handing him.
            I first spotted Bruce skimming credit cards a week ago. It wasn't accidental. I was looking for him or someone like him after several of our bank customers complained of expensive, unauthorized charges on their cards. When I compared their statements, the only duplicate purchases I discovered were for charges at this restaurant.
            I thought it would be worth a look to see if I could spot the thief. It wasn't hard. Bruce was so obvious he was easy to zero in on.
            Normally, I would have turned him in to the police as soon as I spotted him, but he'd probably get off with only a slap on the wrist. So instead of reporting him, I decided to wait and see what Bruce did with the stolen information.
            People like Bruce usually sell credit card data to buyers from identity theft rings for twenty to forty dollars each. The selling of personal identities has become so blatant that the thieves even advertise them on popular Internet sites. I have a hard time understanding why the police let them get away with that. I've seen lives that were destroyed by credit card theft.
            The police can rarely help. Credit card fraud is at the bottom of their work list. Physical crimes against persons are their priority, and that keeps them busy twenty-four/seven.
            In the last couple days, I've followed Bruce to his apartment on Fairfax, to his girlfriend's over the hill in Sherman Oaks, and to Puckett's Bar on Sunset where he plays pool incessantly. That's where I thought he'd hand off his skimmer, but no such luck.
            The other person I'm watching in the restaurant is seated at the bar, reading the LA Times. I recognized him the minute he came in. Eddie Lee, aka Hong Kong Eddie. He's an impeccably dressed, hard-faced man of mixed Chinese heritage in his mid-thirties and wanted throughout Europe and the United States for credit card fraud. It's my job to be familiar with such con men because sooner or later they all come to try their hand in Beverly Hills. I think he may be Bruce's contact.
            While I know him, he doesn't know me. I look like any other mid-thirties woman having lunch. Even my sandy-blonde hair is skinned back in a severe ponytail to make it unremarkable. I've been told I'm fashion challenged. In this case, my basic black suit is purposely not chic enough to be memorable. The only jewelry I have on is a pair of simple silver earrings and the small, antique silver cross pendant that I always wear.
            Casually, Eddie lays down the newspaper and catches Bruce's eye. Bruce nods slightly as he passes, heading to the back room.
            Bingo. I'm right. They are connected.
            I watch Bruce ring up the bill for the baby shower woman. He glances around and then surreptitiously removes a small credit card skimmer from his pocket and slides the woman's card through it. Then he drops the skimmer into one of the restaurant's take-home bags.
            Bruce crosses the room toward the table with the three women. He slides the take-home bag across the bar to Eddie and receives an envelope back. It could contain money or a new skimmer. It all appears innocent enough unless you know what you're looking at. Eddie drops some cash on the bar for his drink and leaves carrying the bag.
            As he exits, I follow.
            Eddie heads for Rodeo Drive. There, he threads his way through the constant parade of out-of-town lookie-loos ogling the display windows. I'll bet Rodeo Drive contains more greed, avarice, and just plain envy than any other street in the world.
            Ahead of me, Eddie enters the posh Hermes store.
            I slip into the shop behind him and pretend to be interested in some of their beautiful trademark silk scarves. Within minutes, Eddie's at the checkout counter with several silk ties, two pairs of diamond and ruby cuff links, and a crocodile skin briefcase. He hands the Hermes salesman an American Express credit card.
            I can't see the total, but I know it has to be in the thousands.
            The salesman rings up the purchases and asks Eddie for ID before running the credit card. Then he presents the receipt for Eddie to sign. "Thank you, Mr. Conklin. Please come again soon," he says as he wraps the items.
            So it's a working day for Eddie, shopping with fake credit cards and ID. Excellent. He'll shop himself right into jail this time.
            Next, Eddie, or should I call him Mr. Conklin, visits the Rolex shop where he purchases two men's Chronograph Daytona watches. This time, Eddie produces another fake ID and signs a Platinum Visa receipt
            The salesman says, "It was my pleasure to assist you, Mr. Johnson."
            I trail Eddie as he makes big-ticket purchases in three more upscale stores, using a different credit card and ID in each—Huntsmeyer, Booker, and Whitmore. Retailers are also victims of identity fraud, but the card companies insure them against loss.
            Just to be sure Eddie doesn't notice me, I change my appearance as we leave one of the stores. I remove my jacket as well as my hair clip, shake my hair down around my face, and add my sunglasses. Hopefully, the stains on my blouse won't look familiar.
            He's halfway across the street at Rodeo and Brighton when the saleswoman from Bulgari, his last stop, erupts out of the store. She almost collides with me in passing.
            She yells after Eddie, "Wait! Stop!"
            I make a fast U-turn and duck into a doorway.
            Eddie pauses, his body tense.
            The saleswoman hurries toward him. "You forgot your receipt, Mr. Rashid."
            "Uh . . . thank you."
            "My pleasure. I hope you enjoy your purchases, Mr. Rashid."
            I smile. That saleswoman chasing after him like that must have given Eddie a real scare. I dial my cell phone.


            Hours later, and loaded with shopping bags, Eddie enters the swank Wilshire Boulevard Hotel. Outside his room, he removes the "Do Not Disturb" sign and inserts his key card in the slot. When the light flashes green, he shoulders his way into the dark room, letting the door shut behind him.
            I note the room number and walk back toward the elevators to make a second call. I could probably kick the door in and go after Eddie myself to make a citizen's arrest, but there'd be a boatload of paperwork. I do have my Glock 17 with me. I'm just not fond of using it. Tonight, I'm content to let the police handle Eddie.
            Ten minutes later, two Beverly Hills detectives exit the elevator.
            The first is Detective Jeff Corwin. In his mid-thirties, he still has the hard-muscled, tough body he got from being an amateur boxer in the Navy. His alert eyes quickly take in the area. They brighten when he spots me. At the same time, his mouth goes up in a crooked smile of greeting. I admit it. It's a great smile.
            I give him Eddie's room number and point in the right direction.
            Jeff and his partner, Gary Dutton, a former pro football linebacker, approach the door. Jeff knocks from a safe position beside it.
            "Who is it?" calls Eddie.
            "Police. Open up," says Jeff.
            "Wait a minute." We can hear Eddie moving about in his room.
            Jeff pulls his weapon. Gary braces himself, then smashes his shoulder into the door. It flies open.
            Jeff steps into the room training his gun on Eddie.
            At this point, I follow them in. I notice Eddie has thrown the hotel's satin comforter over something on the bed. I grab a corner and jerk it off, revealing an abundance of credit cards, watches, jewelry, cash, Nikons, passports, iPads, iPhones, laptops, and other small, expensive items. He's tried to kick the shopping bags from today under the bed, but some are only halfway hidden.
            I point toward the bed. "Eddie, you've been a very naughty boy."
            Gary quickly cuffs Eddie, giving him the "you're under arrest" spiel.
            Jeff nods to me. "We picked up that waiter, Bruce, an hour ago."
            "Thanks." Being a waiter or waitress is a hard enough job without crooks like Bruce giving them a bad name. At least he won't be ripping people off anymore.
            "I wish this wasn't the only way we ever meet anymore," Jeff says.
            "I do too." Jeff is a truly good guy. He's the one I should love. You could tell him your deepest, darkest secrets. Only, I can't burden him with mine. It wouldn't be fair.
            "We're a long way from the academy," I manage.
            "How about catching a bite after we run this guy in?"
            Jeff. . . . "
            "Just remember, Lexi. I'm one of the few people who thinks you got railroaded."
            I look away, struggling not to show how deeply his words touch me. Amazing how much my past still hurts.
            "Okay, then," he says, obviously disappointed.
            I can tell he's hoping for more from me, but it's all I have to share at the moment.
            Behind Jeff, Gary shoots me a look of contempt. I know that look well. It's the one I normally get from law enforcement people who think they know my story.
            "Call nine-one-one next time, not us," Gary says. "We're detectives, not your personal pickup service."
            Eddie struggles as Gary hustles him to the door. Embarrassed, Jeff follows.
            "Watch him closely. He's as slippery as they come," I say.
            "He's a total waste of our time. You know he'll be out before morning," says Gary.
            "Call Interpol. They want him," I say.
            Gary shrugs.
            Jeff turns. "If you'd stayed with the force, you'd be in homicide instead of chasing crummy credit card thieves."
            "Eddie is not just some credit card thief. The money he sends back to his identity theft ring in Asia pays for human trafficking, guns, terrorism—you name it."
            "So? The serious action's in Homicide," Jeff says.
            I hold up a credit card. "People kill for these."

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