Tangled Wed

updated 04/02/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ira and Marissa Lew, owners of PostNet, a business services store in Manhattan's financial district, vividly remember the calls they received in December from a man using the name of the CEO of the investment firm Bear Stearns, James Cayne. "He was very good, very slick," says Marissa. "He was like a businessman." After the man asked to rent two postboxes, he faxed over identification on a Bear Stearns letterhead, and after completing the proper rental papers, faxed those back as well. "I thought everything was okay because he had the documents notarized," says Ira. But when packages began arriving for Cayne's box addressed to a variety of people, Ira became uneasy. "I wouldn't have paid any attention," he says, "but when the boxes came in with a zillion different names, that made me wonder."

By then New York City cops were wondering too—and apparently with cause. Last week police announced that on March 7 they had arrested Abraham Abdallah, 32, a Brooklyn busboy with a criminal past, who they say manipulated the tools of cyberspace—e-mail addresses, Web-enabled cell phones, virtual voice mails—in an attempt to steal millions from some of the country's wealthiest people. Among the targets were investor Warren Buffett, Disney boss Michael Eisner, H. Ross Perot, Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey.

At Abdallah's Brooklyn home, police say they found 800 fraudulent credit cards, 20,000 blank credit cards and a machine to emboss them. In the Volvo he used, they found documents containing the photographs, Social Security numbers, birth dates, home addresses and the mothers' maiden names of more than 200 CEOs of corporations. "He's the best I have ever faced," Det. Michael Fabozzi told the New York Post, which broke the story.

Police say Abdallah had a marked-up copy of Forbes magazine's annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans and had tried to access information on 217 of them. "That means he was trying to get into their personal accounts, their credit card accounts, their stocks," William Allee, the NYPD's chief of detectives, told reporters. Another police source says that although Abdallah did gather some data that could have been used to steal funds, few of the targets were victimized.

Police were reportedly alerted to the case when Merrill Lynch received an e-mail requesting the unauthorized transfer of $10 million from an account belonging to Thomas Siebel, founder of Siebel Systems, the software giant. The criminal complaint against Abdallah, filed in a Brooklyn court, charges that he conducted bogus transactions in the name of Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs. The Lews also maintain that Abdallah opened a postbox in the name of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The ongoing probe is now in federal hands.

Abdallah, meanwhile, sits in New York City's Rikers Island jail in lieu of $1 million bail, a sum he is unlikely to have earned on his busboy's salary at Zaytoons restaurant in Brooklyn. His attorney Samuel Gregory maintains, "This case is not about [Abdallah] trying to steal from the rich and famous of America." As for the alleged $10 million scam against Siebel, Gregory says he has real doubts in his mind as to whether any amount of money was moved. As for Abdallah's intent, Gregory says cryptically, "it will become clear that his motive was not theft, but far more interesting."

One of the arrested man's younger brothers—Abdallah is one of six children—declines to give his name but insists that Abdallah, who is single and lives in the home of his father, a retired grocer, "is very compassionate," the sort of person "who buys food for the homeless in his neighborhood." At present, the brother says, Abdallah is helping to care for a younger sister who suffered a severe eye injury last year, and their father, who the brother says was injured in a car accident several years ago. "He hated to see someone in so much pain while others skirt through life like it's nothing," says the brother.

Police paint a different picture. Detective Allee says that Abdallah, a high school dropout, has been arrested 25 times, 14 times on federal charges, and that nearly all the arrests involved property crimes. In May 1993 he was sentenced to 27 months in prison. And once, as part of a plea bargain, he helped the U.S. Postal Service make a training video warning against Internet fraud. "He was very sophisticated," says Allee. "This is a guy who's insulated himself very well through layers and layers." Now prosecutors must try to peel away those layers.

Jill Smolowe
Sharon Cotliar, Sonja Steptoe, Bob Meadows and Aaron Smith in New York City

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