Thursday, January 11, 2018


I recently wrapped an investigation involving the location and recovery of a Tesla SUV purchased with stolen money.  More impressive than the crook's vintage car collection were the tech-savvy credit card encoding devices that he had perfected over 2 decades of crime, especially in an era when ordering parts off of sites like Ebay, Amazon, and Craigslist were nonexistent.  In 1991, his device pulled in roughly $90,000 before he got caught in Connecticut.  
This level of technical skill was not commonly seen;  the only ATM skimming device I remember in '91 was Terminator 2's John Connor (see above photo) using his Atari Portfolio to make an ATM spew cash.

This form of ATM hacking is actually still used today, and requires malware like Ploutus to function.  Skimmers, however, are somewhat less sophisticated, and therefore easier to produce, replicate and operate.  

In the next few pictures,  you will see some compromised ATM terminals.  Can you spot the skimming components?  (Don't worry... the answers are at the bottom if you get stumped.)

1)   This device has been compromised.  Can you guess where the component is hidden?


2)   You are at a bachelor party in Colombia & your friend gets arrested.  Quick, you have to pull out some cash to bribe the guards before his fresh gringo organs are sold to local thugs!  Which one do you choose, (L) or (R)?


3) Oh no! Your new puppy has peed all over your smartphone.  It's fried.  The store has one left, but you'll need to use their ATM first.  Which one do you use, (L) or (R)?

4)   You have just robbed a museum, and your Mini Cooper is loaded with gold bricks and rare FabergĂ© eggs.  You have 5 minutes to pull out some cash and grab a nice Reuben sandwich for the long journey ahead.  Which card reader do you use, (L) or (R)?




1)   A small camera was planted in the brochure holder of this ATM to capture PIN number entries.

2)  (L) is correct.  (R) is a common skimming device that uses a nearly identical overlay affixed with double-sided tape/ adhesive.

3)  Note the subtle overlay used on (A).   The outer casing is a different shade of grey, different material than the base device, and the green intake slot is significantly larger.

4)  (L) is correct.  (R) shows a common component of skimming systems, a camera planted near the light fixture, colored to match the terminal and out of your sight line.



       As soon as the clerk looks away, this card overlay skimmer gets installed in about 3 seconds.



As fast as technology can advance, there will be clever and more resourceful criminals to match it.    This article's aim was simply to build your awareness, and explain how ATM skimming works at a basic, fundamental, physical level.  Be mindful of your card usage, stay frosty, and always cover your pin!

For more info, check out our pages:


Dave Hartzell is Principal Investigator for Momentum,  a southern California-based detective agency.    An 8-year Navy veteran, he also works as a Realtor and SAG-AFTRA performer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017




Thursday, May 3, 2017


Hunting grifters and con men is a (mostly) thankless and quixotic art, supplanted by low probabilities of justice and an even lesser chance of financial reward.  Luckily, there are some very sharp investigators in the field who see the Con Problem as less of a risky paycheck, and more of a finite puzzle, a Rubik's cube with unaligned colors waiting to be turned.

Earlier this year, I attended a convention in Las Vegas with a few colleagues.  One recounted a story in which his business was hustled for roughly $6,000.  What immediately caught my interest was the description of this thief's behavior.  Further intriguing was my cursory Internet search, which was suspiciously devoid of anything useful.   There were no pictures of him online, the names, numbers and emails led to a series of dead ends.  It didn't take long to realize the scenario at hand.

The following is a true account of a professional grifter in Southern California.

Warm Leads.

Everything about my friend's recollection of the criminal seemed unique, and matched the stories given by other victims: 6'2, +/- 300 pound Samoan with a buzzed Mohawk, goatee, and "uniquely colored eyes".  He said his name was Keiko Vaimaona, aka Komodo Tamakoa, aka Keiko Tsukasa, a mixed-race Bodyguard-To-The-Stars with vast connections in Hollywood and professional sports.   He also claimed to run a concierge service in Vegas and CA, catering mainly to the high-end, black-card, private jet demographic.  He was said to be chatty, attentive, and very charismatic.   He showed many a photo of an extravagant home's gaping foyer, with a colorful Samoan scarf in the foreground draped casually over a winding, ornate banister.   His "clientele" list was a jaw-dropping trove of stars and athletes:

Jeff Winslow of Jet AMG 
Roger Goodell NFL Commisioner
Peter T. Paul Headlands Group
Mark Cuban Dallas Mavericks
Jerry Jones Dallas Cowboys
Bob Kraft New England Patriots
Dr.Jerry Buss Family Los Angeles Lakers
Ron Rivera Head Coach Carolina Panthers
Senator Manny Pacquiao
Dale Earnhardt Jr, Junior Motorsports
Rick Hendrick Hendrick Motorsports
Mark Mastrov Sacramento Kings, New Evolutions 
Joe Gibbs Racing
Tony Stewart Racing SHR
Gene Haase Racing SHR Indy
Jack Rousch Racing Ford Motor sports
Jeff Gordon Hendricks Motorsports
Jimmie Johnson Hendricks Motorsports 
Richard Petty Motorsports 
Brian France CEO NASCAR Motorsports

I set out in late March, starting with only the lead of a strip mall he was known to frequent in Carlsbad, CA.  I chatted with the restaurant manager, who knew right away who I was referring to.  A planned day of one informal interview multiplied into no less than 10 different establishments and 15 different victims of the same person.   All the victims were generally despondent, some were angry, some just curious to see what the truth was.  All of them wanted some form of recourse.  

He was slick enough to dodge getting his photo taken, and to have his true identity revealed.   His social media pages were mostly stock images pulled from the Internet.  As luck would have it, there was one known picture of his face, and a possible Internet handle/nickname.  These were the first few key puzzle pieces I needed to get some forward progress rolling on this case.


Nom de Guerre.

The next task was putting a real name to the face, a hugely critical step in hunting grifters. To have their true identity exposed is a fate worse than death, as their entire livelihood is based on deception.  

I started by researching Samoan islander culture, which is complex and culturally rich in it's own sense.  I then traced the Vaimaona family's general migration timeline to the U.S., locating a man in L.A. with a strikingly similar profile to that offered by Keiko, named Tai Vaimaona.  Tai Vaimaona is a former narcotics officer with LAPD, and actual Bodyguard-to-the-Stars.  He was not pleased to hear how his last name and resumĂ© had basically been plagiarized.   Unfortunately, this turned out to be a dead end.  Luckily, a few alert victims had snapped pictures of his plates, which proved to be the tipping point in cracking this case wide open.

A license plate search on Keiko's 3 known vehicles came back with 5 different people, only one sounding anything vaguely resembling a Pacific Islander surname: Tammy Faagata.  I ran an open-source search, locating a Facebook page with several clues, side notes in red:

This was a strong indicator that I was on the right path, and the subsequent Google search nearly knocked me out of my chair.  A side-by side mugshot with the subject of interest:



I contacted the Carlsbad Police Department, Sonoma Sheriff, Sonoma Agricultural Crimes Unit, as well as local news stations in both Sonoma and San Diego.  Most were uninterested, and the case was brushed aside, considered a "civil" matter.  Check the caption above, there is nothing civil about it.  This is a career criminal working freely in SoCal, leaving customers and businesses disenfranchised.

In a rough estimate of damage done, I believe Averbuck may have conned at least 500-1000 people in California, at both ends of the state, which would have netted  +/- $75-100,000 over a lifetime of crime.  This estimate does not factor in identity theft, which I believe has also occurred on a large scale.  I feel it is a civic duty to keep consumers informed of situations like this.  If you have had a similar encounter with Averbuck, contact law enforcement immediately.  


Prevention of fraud-based crime is possible through consistent situational awareness.  Here are some common traits of con artist behavior to help you key in on a deal that doesn't feel right.

-Excessively charismatic/ high emotional intelligence.
-Digital footprint will exist, but will have many inconsistencies. 
-Lack of Written Contracts/ "Handshake" deals (i.e. Paypal).
-Pre-loaded excuse for not appearing in your photos (or social media).
-Closed off about family.  Details may include facts, but will be vague.
-Paranoid behavior.  You aren't the first person they've conned.  
-Erratic behavior.  Unusual sleep/health patterns.
-Mentions of a storage unit.  

Momentum is a small detective agency, and we are fiercely protective of good business practices and consumer treatment, especially Veteran Owned Small Businesses.  If you suspect fraud of this nature has occurred, contact us

Further Reading.

Legal disclaimer:  It should be stressed that indictments and arrests are only reflective of charges and are not evidence of guilt. The defendants are entitled to a fair trial, at which it will be the government's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


"The Mindset and Methodology of Small-Value Fraud"

April 5, 2017


Fraud is an extremely broad category of crime, ranging from quick street con to highly sophisticated international theft.  At both ends of the spectrum, con artists can make identification, capture and punishment a lengthy, miserable, and often quixotic experience for investigators.

Today I will offer you some brief insight into my experiences with low-level fraud, suggest some working theory on this crime subset, and hopefully help you insulate against cons who are targeting you as we speak.  There are already many resources in this field of study, and I am certainly not the sole expert.  These are essentially my working notes on the subject, offered up to educate consumers on making better business decisions.  This is not a clickbait-driven listicle;  This has been crafted out of years of real-world cases and has helped put some very bad people in prison¹.

The Confidence Cycle

Con artist work is generally placed into 2 groups, the short con and the long con.  I see this as a sweeping generalization.  Often times the short con is a buildup to larger thefts, creating a hybrid of the two.

I have created a concisely arranged fraud overview into 4 phases: Intro, Target, Virus, and Escape.  Note that these are cyclical, fluid, and often repeat at certain junctures to prolong the con/victim relationship.

1) Intro.

Gifts and Perks.  In the intro phase of a confidence cycle, you'll bump into this person during your daily routine, or through a referral.   They may give you a small gift or perk, like a gift card to iTunes or Best Buy, for example.  This is not by chance, and is often paired with an interesting story to quickly establish trust.

Rapport and Credibility.  This person will listen very intently to you, and may even take notes or record your chat before making an approach.  They are easy to talk to, and will chat with you about anything. They may read books on your conversation topics, and will study any available digital info on you (social media, news articles, etc).  As the relationship progresses, their credibility will remain intact, as they are able to access deeper details of your personal life, interests, and network to determine where the most gain will occur.  The contact will often occur somewhere public, and may be a venue that with at least one of these basic characteristics:

  • Free WiFi.  
  • Showers/Hygiene facilities.  
  • Busy/crowded space (i.e. a restaurant with high turnover).
  • Higher income area.
  • Retail space that logically allows them access for several hours (i.e. Starbucks).
  • Free food.

In more sophisticated scams, the con will offer forged proof-of funds documents.  This steers towards White Collar Fraud and will be addressed in future articles on the subject.

2) Target.

The Ask.  After an initial relationship has been developed,  the con will make their "ask" pretty quick.  This is not the goal, but a way to probe your left and right lateral limits (overall level of interest, income, and/or capacity for greed).  In short, this is their chance to pick apart your impulsive behavior patterns in order to better exploit them in the near future.

Each con/victim relationship has unique principles of duality.  Although the con can interweave with your entire network of friends & family, they essentially view each relationship as a unique snowflake, and therefore you will be isolated from other victims.

The initial ask varies by con. It may be a small sum of money to meet an existing need, or a short-term place to stay, backed by an attention-grabbing story ("I need 200 dollars to help save my dying sister").  It may also be more streamlined- a business deal or strategy that seems too good to pass down.  You're in sports?  They know pro athletes.  You're in Hollywood?  They know producers.  You've been to Nepal?  They've summited the North Face of Everest ².

3) Virus.

Patient Zero.  This portion of a scam's life cycle turns a small theft into a virtual hydra of criminal activity.  The victim network will be expanded rapidly, in both personal networks and venues (depending on which have not been fully compromised).  They infect your close personal network of friends and family, running similar scams while simultaneously driving a wedge between everyone you know. This isolation is an essential component of the scam.  Venues are infected as well.  Coffee shops become linked to fast food restaurants, which now link to fitness centers, which link to sushi bars.  Their access and reach now can affect an entire strip mall, town, and potentially an entire city.

4) Escape.

While a near infinite range of permutations exist in which scams can develop, the exit options are significantly more predictable.

The Payment Plan.  You may receive small repayments on your stolen money, or in some extremely rare instances, get it all back.  The former is more common than the latter, and is typically indicative of other concurrent scams.  You may get a personal check that ends up bouncing, and may not even have the criminal's real name.  You may get an envelope of cash tucked under your mailbox, with a note or text message offering a vague explanation of why they couldn't give it in person.  You may get a rejected Paypal payment from a strange email address.

Imaginary Friends.   Make no mistake about it, these types of criminals have very few real friends or colleagues.  Basically everyone they keep close, even family members, serve as viable options when crafting new aliases, associates, or employee names.   You might experience a gap in contact with the con, but now a new person (if real, known as a shill), has contacted you in their place.  I have personally seen texts from a male con to a victim, from the same number, pretending to be a female secretary.

Threats, Leverage, Blackmail.  Con artists of this caliber possess exceptionally high emotional intelligence, and at this point know exactly what buttons to push to keep you under their thumb.  Perhaps they send you a lewd photo or text message.  Maybe they make a thinly veiled threat, or vaguely allude to an unfavorable scenario that ultimately ensures you stay quiet.

Legal Action.  Although the most legitimate form of recourse would be to offer them their day in court, this isn't always velvet-lined with poetic justice.  Low-value con-artists typically make handshake deals, and slip away due to lack of contracts.  High-value con-artists aim for the opposite, steering the case into civil court and buying their way out.  In either case, the most important point to remember is to stay vocal about it.  Swallow your pride, call your local sheriff, news team, and lawyer and get moving before the con artist vanishes and sets up shop in a new city.


Successful, low-grade con artists can destroy lives in the snap of a finger.  While typically nonviolent, their crimes can ruin families and businesses with absolutely no compunction for their deeds.   Their pathological, sociopathic behavior was defined simply by a victim I once interviewed:
"It's like a diver.  They dive too deep, they start forgetting which way is up".

For this reason I have committed a significant amount of time, energy and resources in learning their methods.  Southern California is rife with fraud, and I have declared open season on con artists.  If you feel you are the victim of a scam, contact us.




¹ Article mentioning Xavier "X" Mitchell, a career criminal who spent nearly 15-20 years conducting high-value wire fraud scams in Hollywood, on household names like Jon Favreau and Penny Marshall.  He was arrested twice in January 2016, on at least 5 different felony counts, in both a pre-dawn raid on his home and again in broad daylight at a Starbucks in Burbank, CA.

² An actual Linkedin contact request I received 12 hours before writing this article.  The "rich Nigerian princes" have morphed into slightly less comical avatars, such as this one, a female British banker claiming to have climbed Mount Everest in an attempt to breach my network and eventually hustle my dad.  She targeted my family, so allow me to publicly return the favor.