TAMPA — A man ran up a $7,753.22 bill at an Apple store.
When his debit card was declined, he pretended to call his bank. He gave the store clerk a fake authorization code to punch into the card reader.
And that's how the man, 24-year-old Sharron Laverne Parrish Jr. of Tampa, scammed one of the biggest high-tech companies in the world — not once but 42 times — totaling $309,768, according to federal court records.
A Secret Service criminal complaint charges Parrish with wire fraud, alleging that he tricked Apple clerks in 16 states into accepting meaningless override codes. He is accused of hitting the Brandon store twice, along with stores in Orlando, Wellington and Boca Raton.
Parrish, who lists a home address in the River Grove area of east Tampa, was held without bail in the Pinellas County Jail.
The scam was made possible through a practice known as a "forced sale," "forced post" or "forced code."
A credit or debit card gets declined, a customer protests that funds should be available and a merchant calls the card issuer, looking for authorization to proceed.
If the issuer approves, the merchant gets an authorization code, creating a record of the override.
But that code isn't special.
"It does not actually matter what code the merchant types into the terminal," the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey stated publicly in February after a similar case there. "Any combination of digits will override the denial."
(The Tampa Bay Times is withholding the number of digits so as not to inspire anyone.)
The New Jersey case led to a three-year prison sentence for Temeshia McDonald, 29, who defrauded Victoria's Secret, Banana Republic and other retailers out of $557,690. She was ordered to pay restitution.
The Tampa charge was filed by Secret Service Special Agent Bryan Halliwell, with assistance from investigators for Apple and Chase Bank. John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service in Tampa, said the solution is for merchants to not permit hand-keyed overrides.
"The retailer should not be so anxious to make a sale as to override a declination at the cash register," he said.
Karisse Hendrick, program manager for the Americas at the Seattle-based Merchant Risk Council, said businesses have to weigh customer convenience against liability. And, typically, frontline staff at brick-and-mortar stores are thinking more about pleasing customers than about fraud.
But the store clerk should be the one who places a call for authorization, she said.
"There are very creative bad guys who are always going to be looking for the easy way out and can be very convincing even in person," Hendrick said.
Michigan Retailers Association executive John Mayleben recommended in a blog last year that merchants not even trust the phone number on the back of customers' credit cards.
Merchants can wind up liable for charges if they override a denial.
That was the case with Parrish's transaction at the Apple store in Brandon on Jan. 18, 2013, according to the court record.
"Because Apple employees overrode the initial declination against the instructions of Chase Bank, Apple — not the financial institution — suffered the loss as a result of this fraudulent transaction," agent Halliwell wrote.
Parrish was also accused of trying to defraud a car rental company and a hotel in Seattle. But much of his activity took place at Apple stores.
A spokeswoman for Apple in Cupertino, Calif., declined to say if the company has changed any policies at its retail stores. Calls to management of the Brandon store were not returned.
Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.