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United States v. Pira

July 31, 2008

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
YOUSEF PIRA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 02 CR 1137-Wayne R. Andersen, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, Circuit Judge

ARGUED SEPTEMBER 28, 2007

Before ROVNER, WOOD, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

In November 2002, federal agents executed a search warrant at the Chicago residence of Yousef "Joe" Pira. The agents' suspicions proved to be justified: they discovered 52 credit cards, 25 photocopied credit cards, and personal identification information related to 53 people. In Pira's home and during a later search of his computer, agents also found an extensive collection of contraband, including bank cards, checkbooks in various names, two postal "Arrow" locks (the standard lock used on mailboxes across the city of Chicago by the U.S. Postal Service), a magnetic encoder, four boxes of check stock, Social Security cards, stolen and counterfeit checks (including the image of a $1,000,000 counterfeit check on Pira's computer), fraudulent money orders, and much more. Pira had hidden many of these items in a cubbyhole in his young daughter's bedroom.

Based on what was seized as a result of the search and on statements Pira made to U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Michael Bush during the search, a federal grand jury issued a four-count indictment charging Pira with knowing possession of at least 15 counterfeit, unauthorized access devices with the intent to defraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(a)(3); knowing production, use, and trafficking in at least one access device with the intent to defraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(a)(1); knowing possession of device-making equipment with intent to defraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(a)(4); and knowing possession of a mail lock adopted by the U.S. Postal Service with intent to use, sell, or otherwise dispose of it and cause it to be used, sold, or otherwise disposed of unlawfully and improperly, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1704.

Pira proceeded to trial on these charges, but on the second day of trial he changed his plea to guilty on all four counts of the indictment. Though he later attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, that request was denied. Pira's case then moved to sentencing. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court sentenced Pira to 78 months' imprisonment. On appeal, Pira challenges only his sentence, which we affirm.

I.

Considering the vast and varied assortment of access devices, encoding devices, counterfeit documents, and other contraband found in Pira's home and on his com- puter, it is perhaps unsurprising that, during the search, Pira admitted to Special Agent Bush that he manufactured and possessed counterfeit checks and money orders, and that he also "boosted" credit cards. As Agent Bush recounted at the sentencing hearing, Pira's "boosting" scheme involved obtaining a legitimate credit card from an account holder who had little or no available credit remaining on her credit limit, and then making fraudulent payments to the credit card issuers using other credit cards or counterfeit checks to restore the available credit. After restoring the credit, Pira would make charges until the available credit was once again depleted. As the district court pointed out during sentencing, this scheme revealed a close relation between Pira's use of fraudulent credit cards and his use of counterfeit checks and money orders.

Pira admitted during the search of his residence on November 22, 2002, that he had printed two counterfeit cashier's checks, one drawn on TCF National Bank and the other on Bank One. Both of these checks, Pira stated, remained on his laptop computer, which he had used to create them. He had printed the checks for other people, but he was uncertain whether they were able to cash them.

Following this lead, Secret Service agents conducted a forensic examination of Pira's computer. In addition to finding two TCF Bank cashier's checks for $54,000 and $4,800, the agents also discovered the image of a counterfeit check issued by Bank One and made payable to a man named Salem S. in the amount of $1,000,000. The date on the check was November 12, 2002. Testifying at his sentencing hearing, Pira acknowledged that he created the image of the $1,000,000 check, but he denied ever printing the check or attempting to cash it.

Instead, he claimed, he had prepared it in connection with his work for the Secret Service as an informant. Though it is true that Pira once was a confidential informant for the Secret Service, the two Secret Service agents responsible for working with Pira during his cooperation period, Agent Bush and Special Agent Matthew McCloskey, testified that they had no prior knowledge of the items found in Pira's residence, and that the items were not related to Pira's prior cooperation with the Service. Pira nonetheless has insisted throughout these proceedings that the items found in his apartment during the search were the remnants of his previous status as a confidential informant.

Pira did not dispute that the other counterfeit checks had been found on his computer, but he said that he did not remember creating them. He admitted to helping with the preparation of 450 fraudulent money orders, each in the amount of $750. These he mailed to another man, who, in return, was to pay Pira for the printing job.

The sentencing hearing also featured the testimony of Zach Costinos, who said that he worked for Pira from 1990 until Pira's arrest in 2002. During that time, Costinos stated, roughly two to three times per week Pira provided Costinos with re-encoded credit cards for the purpose of making fraudulent purchases. Pira instructed Costinos to use the cards for purchasing items such as computers, laptops, and other small electronics at stores like Circuit City and Best Buy. Costinos then sold the items and split the proceeds with Pira; typically, Costinos received 15-20% of the proceeds, while the other 80-85% went to Pira. During these years of working together, Pira also tutored Costinos on how to obtain the credit cards and account information and how to use a computer and magnetic-strip device to re-encode the cards with new information. Costinos watched Pira perform this re-encoding process on at least one occasion.

Costinos also worked for Pira as a "runner" to cash and deposit stolen or counterfeit checks. To facilitate this activity, Pira helped Costinos obtain a false driver's license, with a fake name (George Zoto), date of birth, and Social Security number. After taking Costinos to a Secretary of State's office to obtain the license, Pira instructed Costinos to use the phoney ID to open bank accounts under the alias. Costinos did so, establishing accounts as George Zoto at TCF Bank, Liberty Bank, and Plaza Bank. Pira then provided Costinos with checks to deposit into those accounts. The checks included counterfeit checks as well as checks that Pira had stolen from the mail using his "Arrow" key. Before the banks learned that the ...


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