[This article was updated at 5:05 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7]
Five people have been arrested and warrants issued for 17 others in an elaborate scheme to defraud Comcast of more than $2.4 million between April 2011 and April 2012, the Montgomery County District Attorney's office said Tuesday.
The district attorney's office said Alston Buchanan, 28; Leighton Harrell, 26; Kendall Singleton, 26; and Richard Justin Spraggins, 29, all of Philadelphia; and Nicholas Caputo, 31, of Virginia Beach, Va., were "top members of an elaborate criminal organization" that led Comcast customers to make one-time payments to them in exchange for a one-time reduction in their Comcast service bills.
"This is a corrupt organization involving a number of individuals who developed and implemented a very sophisticated scheme in which they would access the personal Comcast accounts of individuals and change the terms of their service for a fee," said District Attorney Risa Ferman.
Ferman said that Buchanan, the ringleader, would typically charge a $150 annual fee that could cut the customer's bill by up to half by adding unauthorized promotions to their account. She said that approximately 5,400 accounts were compromised in a year's time, costing Comcast over $2.4 million.
Authorities said that to fulfill the bogus agreement with the customers, Buchanan, a former Comcast employee and contractor for Comcast, had an associate illegally access the equipment room of a Comcast subcontractor at its office in the Hatboro section of Upper Moreland Township.
In that facility, Singleton allegedly installed an unauthorized computer, at the direction of Buchanan, that he then used to remotely access and manipulate the accounts of the customers who had been enrolled in the scheme.
Investigation begins after Comcast employee solicited
Comcast became aware of the scheme earlier this year, after an "agent" unknowingly approached a Comcast employee, authorities said.
"A woman who was a Comcast employee was sitting in a beauty salon having her hair done, and someone approached her and asked if she was a Comcast customer," Ferman said. "When she said yes, they asked if she would like to have a discount on her bill, and said they could provide that to her."
Ferman said the employee then reported the incident to Comcast's corporate security, which began an internal investigation. Comcast investigators quickly determined that a number of operator ID numbers, some of which belonged to terminated employees, were being used to manipulate accounts, including on sick days.
The internal investigation then tracked the account manipulation to the "secret server" at the Upper Moreland office of the subcontractor, ACI. Following a power outage on April 9, investigators pointed a security camera at the equipment area, knowing that a third party would need to return to reactivate the unauthorized computer. Singleton was allegedly seen accessing the equipment area on security footage the following day.
Within the following hour, authorities say, 96 customer accounts were "accessed and manipulated."
Comcast contacts authorities
Comcast then contacted police, who launched their own investigation.
"Two of our detectives reached out to a fellow named, "Nick," and said they were interested in discounted service," Ferman said. "They agreed on an amount and method of service, and the account was verified by Comcast."
Ferman says that after investigators made a deposit into a TD Bank account, they sent a picture of a deposit slip to "Nick," later identified as Buchanan, to verify the payment. Then, Buchanan allegedly made the undercover detectives an offer.
"In an ironic twist, "Nick" then tried to recruit our undercover detectives to become agents for the operation, saying 'you can make some money on the side,'" Ferman said.
According to Ferman, 17 individuals identified as "agents" worked to solicit individuals. They took a commission on each deal, earning hundreds to several thousands of dollars over the duration of the scheme.
Alleged ringleaders lived lavish lifestyles, but Buchanan told media he was modern day "Robin Hood"
A 61-page affidavit of probable cause reveals further insight into the criminal investigation. According to the document, Buchanan was listed as "Batman" on Spraggins' cell phone, and top ringleaders enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Upon searching Spraggins' home, police found over $100,000 in cash and a number of expensive items.
Despite this, Buchanan, who turned himself into authorities, described himself as a modern day "Robin Hood" to members of the media at the Montgomery County Courthouse Tuesday.
Ferman saw things differently.
"In addition to the hundred thousand dollars, we found significant funds deposited in checking accounts and significant spending histories," Ferman said. "We're talking about thousands of dollars that were both found and seized in banks as well as records of spending in hotels, airlines, bars, strip clubs, high end stores… they were living very high on the hog on other's people's money."
An investigation of Spraggins' personal finances revealed that he had opened debit accounts with Ikea, Sunglass Hut, Armani, Macy's, Apple, Skydiving Freefall Adventures, US Airways, Harrah's Atlantic City, Miami Beach, and more.
An investigation into Buchanan's multiple phone records found text messages detailing concerns as investigators closed in. One featured a conversation between Buchanan and an associate who warned him about paper notebooks that were used to keep "customer" records.
"Get rid of that f---ing book…its paper trail. And stay the f-- off the map I know its hard for u but don't be so out in the open with all your financial moves," one read.
A second message elaborated: "i.e. your car or popping bottles in the vip…if they look at your Facebook page and see 5 cars and all of them expensive. They're going to figure out they got their guy. I'm just saying."
Buchanan responded: "Just changed my title to construction worker lol"
Buchanan, Spraggins, Caputo, Harrell, Irving, and Singleton are charged with criminal conspiracy, theft of services, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, computer theft, computer trespass, and numerous related charges. They are scheduled to be arraigned on Sept. 14 in Upper Moreland.
In addition to the ringleaders, the district attorney's office issued arrest warrants for the following 17 people, whom it described as "agents in this corrupt organization" who were involved in soliciting customers for the scheme.
- Omar Ali, 27, of Bensalem
- Timothy Boone, 30, of Langhorne
- Zindora Crawford, 32, of Philadelphia
- Francis Crowley, 30, of Philadelphia
- Joseph Dolan, 45, of Philadelphia
- Kathleen Doyle, 33, of Bensalem
- Sherree Engle, 28, of Warminster
- Michael Haldeman, 30, of Philadelphia
- Thomas Higgins, 45, of Philadelphia
- John Hoesle, 42, of Philadelphia
- Joseph Hoffman, 39, of Philadelphia
- John Macon, 42, of Philadelphia
- Brandon Massaro, 37, of Philadelphia
- Frank Provenzano, 45, of Philadelphia
- William Rodriguez, 36, of Philadelphia
- Edwardo Roman, 32, of Philadelphia
- Teresa Sterling, 33, of Philadelphia