Middle East radicals may be planning credit card scheme to finance terrorism


NEW YORK -- Terrorists with links to the World Trade Center bombing may now be targeting your wallet, according to a confidential Secret Service memo.

The Treasury Department agency has alerted major credit companies that a radical Mideast religious group may be smuggling thousands of counterfeit credit cards into the United States as a way of financing terrorism.

Officials of American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover learned last week that phony plastic manufactured in Beirut may already be on its way to Canada, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

Federal agents believe that the scheme may have been hatched by Muslim fundamentalists linked to those suspected of bombing the Trade Center.

The confidential memo, sent to international banks that underwrite credit and charge cards, warns that the counterfeiters reportedly have account numbers for thousands of cardholders.

The memo states that the counterfeiters' principal couriers are believed to be Iranians and Armenians.

"Once the cards arrive [at] their destination," the memo warns, "they will be given to Nigerians and Asians, so that they can conduct cash advances and major purchases of large ticket items," which can then be resold.

Money from those charges would be used to underwrite terrorist activity, the feds suspect.

Law enforcement authorities believe that the first cards may have left Beirut around Christmas.

Only after the cards arrive here, investigators say, will they be embossed with the names and account numbers of legitimate cardholders.

In recent years, the Secret Service has set up a special task force to battle credit card counterfeiting conducted by West Africans.

The Treasury agency, which is charged with fighting financial crime, reports that many of the scam experts have been schooled in the activity in Nigeria.

An agent familiar with the task force confirmed that his agency suspects the West Africans may now be conspiring with a faction from the Middle East.

Credit card company officials declined to comment on the memo.

"We don't comment on these investigations," said one company official, "so that people who are committing these frauds won't know how we're combating them."

Attorney Ron Kuby, who is defending Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and others charged with conspiring to bomb the Trade Center, said that tying the bombing suspects with counterfeiting is "part of the ongoing effort to blame all the world's ills on the sheik.

"All that's left is for the government to link him with the squeegee men" on the streets of New York.

Mr. Kuby, whose partner is lawyer William Kunstler, added that, if their clients did have "phony credit cards, they'd have used them to pay us. Nobody has offered us any luggage or stereo equipment."

New York field office spokesman James Kaiser said, "The Secret Service has many ongoing investigations relating to credit card fraud. A number of them are international in scope. Our policy is not to comment on any investigation."

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