- It was a sting worthy of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Earlier this month, Eric Smith, a 21-year-old student at the University of New Orleans, pulled a fast one on Melvin Christmas, a Chicago man who allegedly swindled him out of a brand new Apple Computer Macintosh PowerBook G4 867.
Here's what happened, according to police, information from Smith's personal website and an interview with the college student:
Shortly after purchasing the brand new PowerBook for about $US2300 at the end of November, just after they were released by Apple, Smith decided the laptop was too expensive to keep and put it up for sale on eBay. He asked for a buy-it-now price of $US2950. In addition to the brand new computer, he included an Airport wireless base station "and a bunch of other knick-knacks" to justify the higher price.
Smith said he received several emails from potential buyers, one of whom, a man who called himself Steve Matthews, offered to buy the laptop for $US2900. Matthews told Smith he wanted the machine as a birthday present for his son, who was also in college.
Matthews said he could pay COD for the PowerBook, and Smith agreed and shipped it via FedEx to a Chicago address. On November 21, a man named "Paul Smith" gave the driver a cashier's check from LaSalle Bank in Chicago for $US3052.78 -- a counterfeit check that ultimately bounced.
When the college student tried to track the buyer down, he ran into dead end after dead end. All he had was a cellphone number, an email address and the Chicago address -- which turned out to be just a drop-off point -- where he had shipped the computer.
He contacted the authorities but said the FBI and the Secret Service weren't interested in the case because it didn't involve a large amount of money. Chicago police took a report but didn't pursue the matter further, Smith said.
So he took matters into his own hands. On December 1, he posted what information he had on various internet message boards and soon after received offers of help from a number of fellow Macintosh users.
With their help, he found that the cellphone was registered to Christmas, who lived in Chicago. He also got a response from someone who said he and others had also been the victims of similar scams.
Smith decided to catch a thief by running a con game of his own. Using his girlfriend's eBay account, Smith said he set up another computer auction, hoping that Christmas would take the bait. He allegedly did. This time, Christmas asked that the laptop be shipped to Markham, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Smith called the Markham Police Department and spoke with Sergeant Jim Knapp, who agreed to try and find the elusive Christmas.
"I called FedEx and arranged to pose as one of their drivers to make the delivery to Christmas," Knapp said. "After he signed for the package and handed me the counterfeit check, I placed him under arrest. I found two more similar checks on his dining room table made out to UPS."
Last Thursday, Christmas was charged with two counts of forgery, Knapp said. Yesterday, Knapp said he wasn't sure if Christmas was still in custody or had made bail, even as police tried to determine whether Christmas was part of a larger theft ring.
A man who answered the telephone at the Chicago home of a Melvin Christmas said that Christmas wasn't in.
As for Smith, he said he will probably never see his money or his PowerBook again. As he said on his website, where he detailed the entire case: "Sgt. Knapp said the guy was cooperating and he was going to try to recover my laptop. I'm hopeful, but I don't expect it."