ATHENS, Ga. -- Vikas Yadav was very particular about who could join his credit card cloning ring.
He looked for potential accomplices in the scheme — which netted millions of dollars — in online chat rooms for people who were into sadomasochistic sex.
Anyone who wanted to join Yadav’s ring had to prove himself by having group sex with Yadav — sometimes with other men, women or both — all while Yadav videotaped the scene.
Though the sex satisfied Yadav’s own perversions, he used the unusual initiations to weed out people he thought might belong to law enforcement, according to Athens-Clarke police Detective Beverly Russell, who helped break the cloning ring.
“Basically, everyone that became involved (in the ring) met Vikas in S&M chat sites, and (the way) for them to get into the inner sanctum of the group was to have sex with him and others, and be videoed doing it,” Russell said.
“That was to protect himself, to keep cops from infiltrating his group,” she said.
Though Yadav was deported to his native country of India in 2010, Russell didn’t talk about the strange details of the cloning ring until last week.
She wouldn’t explain how Yadav created the band of thieves while his accomplices faced prosecution. The three main conspirators were sentenced in federal court Jan. 4, effectively closing the case.
“This took one of the most bizarre turns in any case I’ve ever come across,” Russell said.
“Anyone who wanted in with (Yadav) would have to have three-way sex, either with other men or women, but Vikas had to be involved and he would record it all and save the recordings so he could watch it on his big flatscreen TV,” the detective said.
He lived in the upscale Sagewood Equestrian Community off Cherokee Road, where authorities found the TV in his bedroom was rigged to a pair of external hard drives capable of holding 12 trillion bytes of memory for Yadav’s extensive collection of porn videos, Russell said.
Yadav came to this country in order to study at the University of Georgia, where he earned a master’s degree at the College of Pharmacy in 2004. He was expelled from a doctoral program the next year after he was caught plagiarizing.
He went to work at a Lexington Road liquor store, where he began stealing customers’ credit card information, authorities said. He secretly installed in the cash register a keylogger, a legal device about the size of an AA battery, that recorded credit card numbers and PINs.
Authorities said Yadav then used the stolen information to encode blank cards and gift cards that he and his accomplices used to purchase merchandise and make cash withdrawals.
The accomplices who were sentenced in federal court this month — Dashun McQuiller and Shaun Grittner, both of Jacksonville, N.C., and Dwight Riddick of Duluth — used rental trucks to haul flat-screen TVs they bought at stores, then brought them back to Yadav’s home to warehouse the merchandise, authorities said.
“He had dealers lined up who placed orders for specific items, like 50 to 60 flatscreen TVs of a certain size and brand,” Russell said. “It’s not like he sent people randomly to go to the store. He had shopping lists with items already lined up to buy.”
Yadav and his accomplices stole some cash outright, by making ATM withdrawals with cloned cards, but buying merchandise for resale was a way of laundering the ill-gotten profits, according to Russell.
“If someone can show that money came selling merchandise, it looks like the profits are clean,” she said. “But if you can follow the trail back far enough, you find out it was dirty.”
The scheme worked well for a while.
His Sagewood neighbors told the Athens Banner-Herald they always saw new, expensive cars in Yadav’s driveway, including a Hummer, a Mercedes Benz and a BMW.
They saw trucks make regular deliveries to the home, and thought Yadav ran a successful Internet business, or even dealt drugs.
Russell assisted the U.S. Secret Service with an investigation that began in early 2007, after victims began to report they were charged for purchases they never made, and in states they didn’t visit — from Pennsylvania to California.
Several months into the investigation, authorities intercepted a package of more than 20 cloned credit cards that Yadav had shipped to McQuiller in North Carolina, according to a federal arrest warrant.
Police in New Albany, Miss., arrested Yadav in August 2008, near a Walmart where a store employee alerted police that Yadav had made a “suspicious transaction,” according to a federal warrant. Police stopped Yadav’s van and found cloned credit cards, cloning equipment and merchandise bought with stolen credit card numbers.
All of the numbers on the fraudulent cards had been cloned from cards used by customers at the liquor store where Yadav worked on Athens’ Eastside.
A woman who lived there was Yadav’s wife, a U.S. citizen who was in a “sham” marriage so Yadav could get a green card, Russell said.
McQuiller also was there, with nearly a dozen credit cards, but authorities let him go after questioning because investigators hadn’t made a complete case to charge him as part of the conspiracy.
At the time, he drove a Cadillac Escalade that Yadav gave him to use, according to court records, and authorities seized from the SUV 20 fraudulent credit cards, a credit card reader and a skimming device.
Authorities were still searching Yadav’s home when Riddick drove up in a rental truck crammed with TVs still in their boxes and a dozen gift cards. They seized the TVs and also let Riddick go after questioning that continued the investigation, which soon identified Grittner as a major player in the scheme, authorities said.
There were other accomplices authorities never were able to identify, according to Russell, and many illegal transactions never were reported because credit card holders wrongly assumed the banks did it for them.
But it was Riddick — a former New York City police officer — and McQuiller who told authorities about how Yadav recruited potential accomplices through S&M chat rooms, and allowed them into his ring after videotaping group sex.
“They both confirmed that was the criteria for getting in,” Russell said.
Grittner never went through the sexual initiation because McQuiller vouched for him, Russell said.
“These guys were the three main players that we could identify, but we know that Vikas traveled all over the county to meet people that he met in S&M chat rooms,” Russell said.
Yadav’s three conspirators each struck plea bargains with prosecutors.
Riddick pleaded guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property and was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge C. Ashley Royal to two years of probation. McQuiller and Grittner each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud, and Royal sentenced them to 30 months and 10 months in prison, respectively.
Yadav, who faced up to 25 years in prison, was not sentenced before he was deported.