(Daytona Beach News Journal article/published July 4, 2016)
By Patricio Balona
$2 MILLION OPERATION
Gift card theft bust earns Volusia sheriff's investigator state award
DELTONA — Volusia sheriff’s investigator
He didn’t immediately know that it would be the largest retail theft investigation, dubbed Operation Plastic Paradise, his agency has worked. Seven months later, the 39-year-old Paul led a team of 40 deputies on morning raids arresting 23 people, serving five search warrants and six bank seizure warrants. Paul and his team toppled a father and son gift card theft ring that made $2 million in nine months.
Paul’s work caught the attention of the Florida Retail Federation. The organization chose Paul as its 2016 Florida Retail Federation Law Enforcement Officer of the Year and will present him with the award and a $3,000 cash prize later this month. This is Paul’s second prize from Operation Plastic Paradise: It also earned him the Sheriff’s Office 2015 Investigator of the Year Award.
“I thought when we first started the case, that maybe I’ll get a couple of stolen gift card cases and see where it goes,” Paul said in an interview last week at the sheriff’s District 4 Office in Deltona. "But the further we looked into it, the more we realized it was such an epidemic.”
Paul and his team of investigators found themselves following people in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Flagler counties.
“We realized that this was such a huge system that these thieves were working,” Paul said.
The ringleaders were Dale Holcombe, 52, of South Daytona, and his son James Holcombe, 27, of Ormond Beach. The Holcombes were owners of stores in Daytona Beach, Deltona and Bunnell that bought stolen gift cards. The gift cards were obtained by people called boosters, who stole merchandise from stores and then returned it to get credit on a gift card, Paul said.
The Volusia County Sheriff's Office first learned of the gift card theft ring when people called to report that a store on Saxon Boulevard was buying a lot of gift cards and they believed it might not be legal.
While working his property crime beat, Paul and deputies also made several retail theft arrests in which the suspects told them of the gift card business.
"They opened up and told us the reason they were stealing the merchandise from the store is to return it for a gift card and they knew of a place called Cash for Cards where they took the gift cards and got cash with no questions asked," Paul said.
During the seven months of investigation Paul and his team identified the boosters, followed them and constantly kept them under surveillance. Investigators discovered that the Holcombes were buying the cards at a lower price from the boosters and reselling them at a higher price to larger Internet-based companies.
"The break developed when we saw how many times they were going into the same store," Paul said. "We followed them into the stores and watched the employees of the business (Holcombe's business)."
Investigators then pulled the bank records of the Holcombes to see how much money was going through the business and how they were using that money to launder their gift cards to online sights.
The booster tam consisted of people who were down on their luck or had some substance abuse.
"The booster group, the more we talked to them the more we discovered that there was a drug connection," Paul said. "This was constant, it was always there."
One of the persons arrested made at least $80,000 stealing merchandise and selling the gift cards but made no good use of it, Paul said.
"One guy made in excess of $80,000. I asked where the money was hand e couldn’t show anything for it," Paul said. "He and his team had a very huge drug problem.
Administrative offices: West Volusia 386-736-5961 Daytona Beach 386-254-4689 New Smyrna Beach 386-423-3352
Non-emergency dispatch numbers: DeLand 386-943-8276 Daytona Beach 386-239-8276 New Smyrna Beach 386-409-8276 Osteen 407-323-0151