Feds say AWOL soldier stole billionaire's bank info

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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen lives in a multi-mansion complex on a Seattle island, so you'd think a bank customer service representative would ask some pointed questions before changing his account address to that of an East Liberty townhouse.

Somehow, though, that's what a Citibank customer service representative did on Jan. 9, when AWOL Army Pvt. Brandon L. Price, 28, called and identified himself as one of the world's 100 wealthiest people and asked to have the address on his account changed, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed on Monday.

Days later, he got Citibank to send him a debit card -- but notably declined to report the old one as stolen -- and started spending Mr. Allen's money, according to the affidavit.

"We were led to this through our own security procedures and we turned the matter over to law enforcement" with which the bank continues to cooperate, said Catherine Pulley, a Citibank spokeswoman, on Tuesday. "We take customer security very seriously, and we have many systems in place to monitor for fraud."

She declined to detail them, to discuss the allegations against Mr. Price or to answer the question on many minds as the story spread: How could this happen?

A banking security expert said that Mr. Allen's wealth and fame paradoxically may have made it easier for a con artist to manage what's called account takeover.

Mr. Allen is probably in a "privileged" client category, said Thomas J. Lekan, a senior vice president at Cleveland-based Atlantis Security Co. who spent 14 years as senior security executive for Key Bank. "Sometimes the people that handle the call centers, and handle those kinds of accounts, handle the [privileged clients] with kid gloves."

Mr. Price is charged with wire fraud and bank fraud, according to court documents, and is in trouble with the Army for being absent from his Fort Leavenworth, Kan., post since June 2010.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ordered him detained until April 2. If the Army doesn't take him into custody by then, he will be released on bond.

His attorney, assistant federal public defender Jay J. Finkelstein, could not be reached, and no one was home at Mr. Price's townhouse on Station Street in East Liberty.

According to the FBI, Mr. Price was able to get a Citibank representative to change both the address and phone number of Mr. Allen's account, and then had a debit card delivered by UPS.

Over the three days that followed, he paid off a $658 delinquency on his Armed Forces Bank loan but was unsuccessful in attempts to get $15,000 through Western Union, to spend $278.18 at Gamestop, and to make a $1 purchase at Family Dollar.

Cameras in both stores recorded Mr. Price in an Army windbreaker, and on Feb. 9 the FBI spotted him. The bureau applied for an arrest warrant Feb. 29 and made the arrest this month.

How Mr. Price would have gotten past the typical first line of questions asked by bank representatives -- date of birth, last four digits of Social Security number, mother's maiden name -- wasn't known Tuesday.

In co-opting Mr. Allen's account, Mr. Price picked the lesser known partner of Bill Gates, but by no means did he target a wallflower. Mr. Allen's properties include the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers, and he recently released his memoir, "Idea Man."

As a result, some of Mr. Allen's personal information may be floating around the Internet. Adding to his vulnerability, bank employees might be shy about asking probing questions of someone like Mr. Allen, said Mr. Lekan.

Mr. Price "was a good con man and he [called] a privileged area and knew what he was doing," Mr. Lekan said, speculating based on news reports.

"Because [Mr. Allen is] a big shot, because he's privileged, [Mr. Price was] talking to a special call center ... People who have a very large relationship with a bank are treated much more carefully. Can you imagine saying, 'How do I know you're Paul Allen?'"

Even privileged clients should get an email, letter and maybe phone call before an account address is changed, Mr. Lekan said. "Let's just say that should never have happened in an American institution like Citibank."

Mr. Allen's spokesman, David Postman of Vulcan Inc., sent a written statement that didn't blame Citibank.

"I can tell you that Citibank contacted law enforcement and alerted us, which we're appreciative of," he said. "It does raise some questions and we're working with Citibank to better understand how this happened.

"Identity theft is a serious issue and everyone should be vigilant about monitoring their accounts for unauthorized activity," Mr. Postman continued.

"While the financial loss here was small, I'm sure the feeling of being a victim of identity theft is unsettling no matter how much money you've lost."

Mr. Allen shouldn't be out-of-pocket. Ms. Pulley said Citibank "customers are not liable for fraudulent activity."

centers, and handle those kinds of accounts, handle the [privileged clients] with kid gloves."

Mr. Price is charged with wire fraud and bank fraud, according to court documents, and is in trouble with the Army for being absent from his Fort Leavenworth, Kan., post since June 2010.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ordered him detained until April 2. If the Army doesn't take him into custody by then, he will be released on bond.

His attorney, assistant federal public defender Jay J. Finkelstein, could not be reached, and no one was home at Mr. Price's townhouse on Station Street in East Liberty.

According to the FBI, Mr. Price was able to get a Citibank representative to change both the address and phone number of Mr. Allen's account, and then had a debit card delivered by UPS.

Over the three days that followed, he paid off a $658 delinquency on his Armed Forces Bank loan but was unsuccessful in attempts to get $15,000 through Western Union, to spend $278.18 at Gamestop, and to make a $1 purchase at Family Dollar.

Cameras in both stores recorded Mr. Price in an Army windbreaker, and on Feb. 9 the FBI spotted him. The bureau applied for an arrest warrant Feb. 29 and made the arrest this month.

How Mr. Price would have gotten past the typical first line of questions asked by bank representatives -- date of birth, last four digits of Social Security number, mother's maiden name -- wasn't known Tuesday.

In co-opting Mr. Allen's account, Mr. Price picked the lesser known partner of Bill Gates, but by no means did he target a wallflower. Mr. Allen's properties include the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers, and he recently released his memoir, "Idea Man."

As a result, some of Mr. Allen's personal information may be floating around the Internet. Adding to his vulnerability, bank employees might be shy about asking probing questions of someone like Mr. Allen, said Mr. Lekan.

Mr. Price "was a good con man and he [called] a privileged area and knew what he was doing," Mr. Lekan said, speculating based on news reports.

"Because [Mr. Allen is] a big shot, because he's privileged, [Mr. Price was] talking to a special call center ... People who have a very large relationship with a bank are treated much more carefully. Can you imagine saying, 'How do I know you're Paul Allen?'"

Even privileged clients should get an email, letter and maybe phone call before an account address is changed, Mr. Lekan said. "Let's just say that should never have happened in an American institution like Citibank."

Mr. Allen's spokesman, David Postman of Vulcan Inc., sent a written statement that didn't blame Citibank.

"I can tell you that Citibank contacted law enforcement and alerted us, which we're appreciative of," he said. "It does raise some questions and we're working with Citibank to better understand how this happened.

"Identity theft is a serious issue and everyone should be vigilant about monitoring their accounts for unauthorized activity," Mr. Postman continued.

"While the financial loss here was small, I'm sure the feeling of being a victim of identity theft is unsettling no matter how much money you've lost."

Mr. Allen shouldn't be out-of-pocket. Ms. Pulley said Citibank "customers are not liable for fraudulent activity."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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