Student Helps Cops Arrest Alleged Swindler

The student used message boards and chat rooms to gather information about the alleged perpetrator, and then set a trap.

by / December 16, 2002
MARKHAM, Ill. (AP) -- Using a web of Internet informants, a student doggedly pursued a bogus-check writer who allegedly cheated him out of a computer through eBay, helping police ultimately arrest the suspect.

Eric Smith, a University of New Orleans student, initially had few clues to find the person who bought his Apple laptop on the Internet auction site with the bogus check: He had an e-mail address, a cell phone number and the Chicago street address where he shipped the laptop, but the address turned out to be nothing more than a mail drop.

By posting the scant details on Internet message boards and chat rooms, Smith got responses from more than a hundred fellow Macintosh users. They found the registration of the phone number and provided evidence that a Los Angeles resident had been similarly swindled.

Smith said the FBI and the Secret Service declined the case because it didn't involve a significant loss; the Chicago Police Department took a report.

Smith finally decided to set a trap by using his girlfriend's eBay account to set up another computer sale and stake out the buyer. The next e-mail said to send the computer to suburban Markham, where police were glad to help.

"I don't know much about computers, but I have a passion for this kind of work," police Sgt. Jim Knapp said Friday. "And Eric had made it so easy. He'd really worked to put together this nice little package that couldn't be ignored."

Melvin Christmas, 38, was arrested Thursday and charged with two counts of forgery; it was unclear whether he was in custody. Telephone messages left with police and at a listing for a Melvin Christmas in Chicago were not immediately returned Saturday.

Knapp said the suspect may have been part of a theft ring. About a dozen other people have contacted the department, saying they lost computers the same way, he said.

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