Two sentenced for high-tech ATM thefts

March 21, 2008

By Val Walton, News Staff Writer

A federal judge ordered a Birmingham woman who helped steal thousands of dollars from automatic teller machines to serve one month in prison instead of the 18-month prison term handed down earlier Thursday.

Prosecutors said James Real, 43, stole a database from Compass Bank that contained names, account numbers and customer passwords, while Laray Byrd, 29, bought a credit-card encoder and software to encode the information onto blank cards.

In a five-hour sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Virginia Hopkins varied from the sentence she first gave to Byrd, 29, after expressing a desire to give her a chance to continue working to take care of her two small children.

Hopkins ordered the ringleader, Real, a former computer programmer for Compass, to serve 42 months in prison for the bank fraud scheme that netted $32,740 from ATMs in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee.

The investigation turned up more than 200 bogus debit-type cards and the recovery of at least a million stolen accounts.

Much of Thursday's hearing focused on whether the two should have been penalized more in sentencing because they committed a crime that used sophisticated means.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Atwood presented testimony suggesting the crime rose above a simple identity theft case. "This is a massive scale," she said.

They stole up to $500 at a time and attempted to evade detection by using the counterfeit cards outside Birmingham, Atwood said. They could have gotten more, but the crime unraveled before they did more damage, Atwood said.

Real, who wore a hat, a wig, sunglasses and a fake beard, was arrested after UAB police noticed him withdrawing money from ATMs near UAB's Hill University Center on June 28. Byrd said she stopped before then.

Attorneys for Byrd and Real contended the two were not sophisticated criminals because they failed 90 percent of the time in getting money. W. Scott Brower, Byrd's attorney, argued that if they were sophisticated criminals, their success rate would have been higher.

Both Real and Byrd sought leniency from the judge, who described herself as one who handed down harsh white-collar sentences in the north Alabama federal court district.

Real asked the judge to fashion a sentence that would allow him to pay Compass. He apologized to Compass customers. Real said his life took a bad turn after a divorce and he got back on drugs after years of being clean.

Hopkins told Real she considered his 42-month sentence reasonable and said white-collar criminals should be jailed.

"It is a hugely serious offense," Hopkins said.

Byrd told the judge she knew she was committing a crime, but she said she had lost her savings on a failed business venture. She said she was trying to make a better living for her family and now works at a car dealership.

"I do admit what I did was wrong," she said. "I'm not making excuses."

Hopkins reconsidered Byrd's sentence after she reflected on a prior sentence for another defendant she said she later regretted.

Hopkins ordered Real to pay $32,740 in restitution to Compass Bank, while Byrd is responsible for paying $19,797 of the amount.

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