Anatomy of a Scam Investigation: Chapter Five

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68 Responses

  1. Ken says:

    Certainly possible. The relief from stay documents show that Branden/Michelle got it from Rusnak through UST Dry. The pic shows a Rusnak dealer plate. The pic has a caption saying that Michelle gave it to Branden as a Valentine's Day present. The docs show a lease date of 2/12. Although it's kind of funny that Michelle gave it as a "present", but UST Dry is paying for it. Less than eight months later UST Dry was in bankruptcy, claiming that it could not pay its debts. For that matter, UST Dry's schedules an adversary actions (as well as those of its closely related, arguably alter ego entity UST Development) suggest that it was already not paying its debts at the time that they leased this Porsche.

  2. Bruce says:

    Ken – you really do walk the walk.

    Snark and glibness are actually pretty easy and always fun, but to put your money where you mouth is and make a stand is a truly admirable thing to do.

    I was thinking of buying some of those truck nuts and getting them attached to your office chair. Far more deserving than merely owning a large utility vehicle.

  3. twency says:

    Some of the quoted documents above show signs of having been munged by OCR conversion. My favorite error, which almost looks like the software version of a Freudian slip:

    "the Trustee believes that this is an abusive fling under 11 U.S.C. §707, to stop litigation while Debtor does business under a different name."

    (The bad OCR of course has nothing to do with the substance of the blog post, which is excellent and for which I offer a sincere "Thank You" to Ken.)

  4. Josh says:

    It's definitely the myspace page of Branden Bell –
    http://www.myspace.com/270869128/photos/1094171

  5. M says:

    @David – Good find! First linked pic shows a truck in the background with "UST Dry Utilities" on the side. :)

  6. nhrpolitic13 says:

    Brilliant work, Ken. I was actually quite entertained looking through this scumbag's pics on his Myspace page — hoping I'll read about the part where the popos show up and wipe the smirks off Pa & Ma Bell's faces.

    Looking at the trail they've already left behind, I have to wonder: what took someone so long to put it together?! Again, great work — keep it up!

  7. Awesome detective work. Props.

  8. Simon says:

    This all makes me wish I was a lawyer way more than legal dramas do. And a US citizen, of course. I'm not into the wigs we have in the UK.

  9. bob says:

    Put them in the Stocks and let the townspeople throw rotten tomatoes at them!

  10. Roger says:

    When I grow up, I wanna be like Ken! :)

  11. Stuart Hancock says:

    So….

    Who has time to read all of the stuff you wrote on this topic, Ken? You know how busy we all are.

    I read it all. Pretty spellbinding, actually. This is really awesome stuff. And although I do sign up for the rule of law and all that, I do keep having this sort of knee-jerk reaction which wishes for Tony Soprano to go over to Mr. Bell's house and "explain" things to him. And I'd pay to watch. But that's just me…

    Regards :-)

  12. Firehawke says:

    I'm pretty impressed with your attention to detail. You've put together a pretty solid dossier of the Bells and their history of scamming, and it certainly implicates Cynthia as much as it does Branden and David.

    You've got nearly enough to hand this off to prosecution, should there be any interest. Let's hope someone will step forward to take this one and bring these scumbags down. (Remember! Scammers are SCUM!)

    I have to admit a _lot_ of your methodology is quite familiar, though. I had to use similar methods when tracking down 419 scammers as an administrator for a fairly popular free email service about eight years ago.

  13. I-) says:

    maybe you mentioned this earlier and i missed it, but… how are you getting such good search results while googling for a common name like 'david bell'? how do you not get mixed up with search results that are for the good 'david bell'?

    I-)

  14. ZK says:

    So in my delusions about the proper function of the US legal system, people like this get caught, ruined, and tossed into some sort of confinement for criminals, like, say, "jail". It sounds like this might be covered in the next installment, but I'm really wondering what the odds are that this might happen…

    I'm also curious if the Bells are reading this series.

  15. Raymond says:

    When an average citizen writes a bad check for high hundreds of dollars (let alone, tens of thousands of dollars), they risk criminal charges and even jail time if they do not quickly make good.

    Why are these scammers only being pursued civilly when there is such a clear cut case for criminal charges? I understand that proving their complicity in the various scams is a difficult and time consuming process.

    Not so with the checks. The issue of the checks seems very cut and dry. They wrote the checks, there were insufficient funds, they have (very likely) made no moves to make good.

    Why are there no criminal warrants? Or are there?

  16. Rliyen says:

    Wow, just wow.

    I used my legal powers for nerdy purposes (finding out where to send flowers and a consolation card to the widow of Gary Gygax), but this is eleveteny kabajillion times better!

    *kowtows to Sifu Ken*

  17. Dan Weber says:

    Most communities have a balance of good will: the amount of stuff they're willing to let other people do on their word. In some places, it's very high; in some places it's very low. It's a lot easier to do business in the former places.

    Scammers plan is basically to extract this balance for themselves. And by transforming high-trust areas into low-trust areas, they are very harmful to communities.

    So I love this series. Ken is taking the personally irrational move to pursue this scammer, and depositing more good-will into the community at large. Good job, man.

  18. Ken says:

    I recognize that the irony of this is that my semi-anonymity is almost certainly over. Smart people (two or three journalists and a law student) have pieced it previously, David Bell and his lawyer know my Secret Identity, and someone reading this is certain to play the let's-turn-the-same-techniques-around-on-him.

    Oh, well. C'est la guerre. My biggest concerns remain asshats annoying my secretary (THAT'S MY JOB) and a certain white supremacist in my neighborhood.

  19. graham says:

    Interesting reading this stuff,

    But it does make me think we should all get into scamming, As it seems impossible to prosecute, or even get the money that's owed back. While these "bell-ends" (see what i did there) live it up.

  20. Ken says:

    Graham, generally scammers are able to operate long-term through obscurity, name changes, anonymity, people giving up, etc.

    At some point, though, the complaints and investigations reach critical mass, yielding results.

    I'm trying to demonstrate how citizens can help push scams toward that critical mass.

  21. SPQR says:

    Wonderfully entertaining work, Ken. I'm hoping that the series has some insight on why these people appear to have defrauded people and companies out of what sounds like more than $5 million and yet are not in jail.

  22. Michael says:

    One cool google thing I didn't see you using here: Google Street View.

    I'd used that to see what was at some address in Florida that I thought was a scam. Expecting to see an office park…it was more like an old falling down farm. Images aren't up to the minute, but you can see if it's an office or a house or an empty lot :)

  23. Ken says:

    Excellent point, Michael. I think I alluded to it once (maybe that suspect business at the same address?) but haven't used it much yet. It's very useful to make a quick determination that an address is actually a Mailboxes Etc. or something.

  24. Ken says:

    By the way, some of the pingbacks tempt me to do "Anatomy of a Scraper" next — several sites are simply scraping and re-posting the entire BoingBoing and TechCrunch posts verbatim.

  25. pacifica says:

    Thanks for a fascinating journey. The psychology of the scammers is intriguing – and baffling – in itself. Not just their willingness to do harm to others, but their willingness to spend their days fending off what must be a constant stream of phone calls, emails, and personal visits from all their victims. To me, that sounds like a form of hell that no number of German cars could make up for.

  26. Sean Benward says:

    With everything on record that these pieces of crap did against city governments, attorneys, big businesses etc, yet these crap piles are free and not in jail.

    It doesn't take a lot of head scratching to figure out why scummers proliferate. Once you get over the fact that you are a low life, the sky's the limit.

    These are crimes that leave a shit stain on the fabric we call civility. These people need to be in prison.

  27. Mike says:

    One of Branden's top friends: UST Dry Utilities (with 10 friends of the group), http://www.myspace.com/280499279

  28. NLP says:

    I've been reading "The Devil in the White City" which is about Dr. H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Holmes (whom some people believe may have been the most prolific serial killer in American history) also spent his time assuring his many creditors that the money would be forthcoming soon, and it was no doubt some mistake at the bank. Certainly most scammers are not murderers, but the same contempt toward other people, and the same lack of responsibility is evident.

    I'm enjoying this series enormously. Thank you for spending so much time doing the research and explaining the path of lies.

  29. Hickok says:

    i couldn't find it anywhere but has the Pedal Spin Studio connection been made?

    Cindy (LaPolice)Bell owns it and she lives in La Crescenta, California and is married to David Bell. It seems her maiden name is LaPolice

    http://www.facebook.com/cindy.bell
    http://www.facebook.com/dbell04

    You can find some great connections via their facebook friends lists.

  30. Hickok says:

    And here is Branden's profile (via wife's profile(Wendy Holt))

    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002825226176&ref=ffa

  31. Ken says:

    The connection has been made. However, anonymous comments elsewhere aside, I have seen no direct evidence (as opposed to circumstantial financial evidence) that Pedal Spin Studio is part of the wrongdoing I have described. For that matter, the evidence I have posted so far shows Mr. Bell's intent rather graphically, but does not show the same sort of involvement by Cynthia Bell. She is named in many suits, and has signed documents, but so far the personal involvement in fraudulent representations seem to be attributed to her husband, not her.

  32. Hickok says:

    I see that, it seems her Facebook account has been removed in the last 10-15 minutes. I am assuming they are monitoring your site.

  33. Sean Benward says:

    All these Bell's. My head is ringing. Haha

    No seriously, looking through the bankruptcy documents, they lived a high on the hog life style. It would be very hard for me to believe that at the minimum c bell didn't know what was going on if not a co-conspirator herself. For all we know, all that scammed money could have been used to prop up Pedal Spin or Pedal Spin was used to launder the scammed cash. In any event she is dirty and the business should be sold or have a lien attached to recoup something for the victims before they are both sent to prison which I hope is soon.

  34. Ken says:

    Regarding the OSC re Contempt: this is the most uselessly coy entry I have ever seen on a docket:

    "Hearing Held – re OSC – Granted. 31 (Cargill, Rita) (Entered: 09/16/2011)"

  35. Orion Silvertree says:

    The most amusing thing so far? the MySpace page for UST Dry Utilities just got an achievement:

    "UST DRY UTILITIES just earned the In The Spotlight badge
    Because your photos are earning quite a bit of attention."

    …I wonder where all that traffic is coming from?

  36. tomd says:

    It's interesting that the payroll companies are so vulnerable to this sort of scam. You'd think they would have developed some way to 1)not get hit in the first place, and 2)prevent multiple companies from being robbed in the same way, over and over.

    Overall, this reinforces my feeling that checks are an awful system. As a service providing licensed professional, I get paid with checks from clients, but I'll be happy when they go away in favor of some more widespread EFT system.

  37. Ken says:

    @tomd In my experience, both as a prosecutor and now as a defense lawyer and litigator, a bad economy makes people more vulnerable to these scams, because they are so desperate for business.

  38. Ken says:

    Please note update in bold:

    [Edited to add: Ms. Bell, or someone pretending to be her, from an email account that registers as "Cynthia Lapolice" in Outlook, asserts that she does not use aliases and has "never purchased property under an assumed name."]

  39. Peter says:

    With regards to PACER, you said:

    > Searching is free

    I use the pacer search locator (pcl.uscourts.gov) almost every day and as far as I know, searches cost the same per page as everything else on PACER (each page of search = 54 results).

    If there is a free search somewhere else, please do let me know! :)

  40. David says:

    Ken, that update is so thick with irony I want to sell it to a blacksmith.

  41. Ken says:

    Quite.

    Update: regarding the OSC Re Contempt, which the docket showed as "GRANTED." I am informed by a reliable source that the United States Bankruptcy Judge granted the request for an order of civil contempt and will shortly issue a bench warrant, meaning that the U.S. Marshals will arrest Ms. Bell and bring her before the court. Some find that to be an unpleasant experience.

  42. SPQR says:

    Certainly none of my clients who've had that happen to them … usually from ignoring my advice … have enjoyed it.

  43. Ken says:

    Update appended to end of post.

  44. SPQR says:

    No fair, we want the entire Five-O fantasy story.

  45. Debra says:

    "Some find that to be an unpleasant experience."

    Going for understatement of the year award? :)

  46. Grub says:

    From Branden's myspace blog is this 'lil nugget. Appears the poor sod went and crashed the porsche:

    Thank you to all those who helped with the accident on the 3rd . I made a mistake and I paid for it … its nice to know that I have the support of the family and friends around me to get me through it. At times I live life close to the line and feel as though whatever comes my way I can endure. This has tought me that as tough as I think I am I better be ready for some pain in return if I continue on this path … Should I sell the porsche?? Now I see why Im not aloud to have a motorcycle and why people say its a good thing I dont drink!! Ha !!

  47. louise says:

    Actually, the accident appears to have been in 2008… I am sure he is not feeling "rejuvinated" today …

  48. Dan Weber says:

    As a service providing licensed professional, I get paid with checks from clients, but I’ll be happy when they go away in favor of some more widespread EFT system.

    One of the documents today made it look like a Bell had committed EFT fraud. Checks are pretty vulnerable to fraud, but the EFT system is, if anything, even more wide open. He (allegedly) just took out an extra $20,000 on his own, and they victim could only beg for it back.

  49. WayneJ says:

    RECAP is a Firefox extension that attempts to improve the PACER experience by providing some documents free of charge, and by allowing you to share documents you have paid for on PACER with others. (The documents are part of the public record. From the Recap website "The court-created documents provided by PACER are works of the federal government, and under copyright law, are automatically placed in the public domain and may be shared without legal restriction.")

    See https://www.recapthelaw.org/ for more information.

  50. Raymond says:

    EFT fraud? Check fraud?

    No matter the other scams, those specific cases seem to be slam dunk criminal offenses.

    Why didn't the victim companies simply move to have him arrested?

  51. Ken,
    Great job on the research. I've done my share of researching and exposing scams and fraud on my blog, including one which earned me a very well-done lawyer letter threatening a SLAPP suit, but I have to say that your efforts here have exceeded anything I've ever done. :-)
    If you write more about this, there's an important point that I'd like to see you stress. People can and should research and write about scams and frauds without spending nearly as much time on it as you did. It's great that you have the time and inclination to turn over every rock and follow every lead. Not everyone does, but that shouldn't stop them from posting whatever they have time to post if someone tries to scam them!

  52. louise says:

    Boy, he's going to rue the day he sent you an invoice – possibly the most expensive mistake he has ever made! Totally support you on the elder scam idea -

  53. tom says:

    I really want to hear about the Hawaii Five-Oh fantasy.

  54. Ken says:

    @Jonathan Kamens

    Jonathan: Thanks for mentioning that. I visited your blog and searched for "SLAPP" to find the story. If it's ok wit you, I'd like to mention it here when I get to my chapter on risks and how to manage them. Nice work on exposing the scummy telemarketers.

  55. Jezza says:

    Ken,

    In case no-one else has pointed it out, slight typo you might want to take care of "Ebay attaches exhibits including a judgment…" You don't want eBay on your back.

    Fascinating read, loved it. Hope there is a sequel.

  56. Ken says:

    Update 9/21:

    Order of Civil Contempt against Cynthia Bell issued, indicating bench warrant shall issue. Follow-up OSC to both David and Cynthia Bell ordering them to appear on 9/22 regarding the contempt finding, on pain of a bench warrant.

    The bench warrant has been issued and filed and is online, but the second OSC may or may not mean the Court has held the bench warrant until she sees whether they show up on 9/22.

    The second

  57. Ken says:

    The Court found that she purged her contempt, so the Court released the detention order.

  58. Bruce says:

    I had to look up what that meant, Ken. I'm not au fait with court procedural terms (Yay for the legal section of the Free Dictionary).

    Is it possible that she has rung up with some sort of sob story, offered some platitudes and gotten off the hook? This would be all in a day's work for a scammer.

  59. Sean Benward says:

    "Pursuant to the hearing held in court on September 22, 2011, debtor Cynthia Bell is found to have purged herself of the civil contempt that resulted in her detention pursuant to the court’s order of September 20, 2011."

    Was she actually detained?

  60. Sean Benward says:

    Scratch my last question, I just re-read and saw that she was arrested. That experience must of made for some great pillow talk at the Bell household.

  61. Fredco says:

    My company is in Northern CA and we received an invoice from them today.

  62. Ken says:

    Fredco, do you have a mailing date?

    If they kept mailing after the BBB informed them that it's illegal – and after they read it here — that is very probative of fraudulent intent.

  63. Ken says:

    Gosh.

    "Wholesale Electric" of Ontario. That sounds like a nice company. But it's kind of a generic name. I bet it would be easy to mix up what check goes where when you have a bunch of companies with "Wholesale Electric" in their name.

  64. Unfortunate Vic/employee says:

    I'm just finishing Chapter 5. I'm glued to my seat as I read these posts and know these guys as getting what's coming.

    Glad you received the email.

    I'ts been a couple of years, but I'll try to find a developer that issued a check or has documentation from "Wholesale Electric." These guys burned a lot of bridges for me, so I don't even know if anyone will talk to me, but I'll try.

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