Chinese organized crime’s latest US target: Gift cards

Chinese organized crime’s latest US target: Gift cards

Chinese crime rings already dominate the illegal marijuana trade in the U.S. and launder cocaine and heroin profits. Now a federal task force is investigating their role in a burgeoning form of gift card fraud.

by Craig Silverman and Peter Elkind, ProPublica

Federal authorities are investigating the involvement of Chinese organized crime rings in gift card fraud schemes that have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars or more from American consumers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has launched a task force, whose existence has not previously been reported, to combat a scheme known as “card draining,” in which thieves use stolen or altered card numbers to siphon off money before the owner can spend it. The initiative has been dubbed “Project Red Hook,” for the perpetrators’ ties to China and their exploitation of cards hung in store kiosks on “J-hooks.”

This marks the first time that federal authorities have focused on the role of Chinese organized crime in gift card fraud and devoted resources to fighting it. Homeland Security began prioritizing gift card fraud late last year in response to a flurry of consumer complaints and arrests connected to card draining.

Over the past 18 months, law enforcement across the country has arrested about 100 people for card draining, of whom 80 to 90 are Chinese nationals or Chinese Americans, according to Adam Parks, a Homeland Security assistant special agent in charge based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Parks, who is leading the task force, estimates that another 1,000 people could be involved in card draining in the U.S., mostly as runners for the gangs.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially billions of dollars, [and] that’s a substantial risk to our economy and to people’s confidence in their retail environment,” he told ProPublica.

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