30 years after the fall of the “king of plastic”, the Argentine who became the biggest fraudster in Europe using credit cards

30 years after the fall of the “king of plastic”, the Argentine who became the biggest fraudster in Europe using credit cards
30 years after the fall of the “king of plastic”, the Argentine who became the biggest fraudster in Europe using credit cards

The only photo that exists of Raúl Hougham on the cover of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia on Saturday, May 24, 1994

“If when Christopher Columbus came to these places he stole everything; What makes you think I steal a little from you?”, Raúl Ricardo Hougham used to boast to the very few friends who knew of his maneuvers in Spain. Because although in Europe man was a prudent and effective swindlerwhen he was passing through his hometown of Colón, in Entre Ríos, he sometimes went off the deep end to tell of the successes that his “Creole liveliness” had in store for him on the other side of the Atlantic.

Even in that boast, Hougham fell short when he said he stole just “a little.” His friends and millions of Argentines found out about this in mid-May 1994, when the national newspapers put it on their covers. “An Argentinian is the biggest fraudster in Europe“, headlined one of them and stated on the flyer that he had obtained a loot of seven million dollars with his maneuvers with stolen and counterfeit credit cards.

When he was arrested in Barcelona, ​​on May 13, 1994, the Spanish media did not hesitate to baptize him with a catchy name, “The King of Plastic.” It was also said that Hougham, then 50 years old, had a long criminal record and that when he was arrested he used a false identity, because in addition to knowing how to forge cards he also had the rare ability to steal documents and passports with singular mastery, and that he had even to undergo surgery to modify his fingerprints.

He had entered Spain through Barcelona Airport, from Amsterdam two days before his arrest with a Portuguese passport in the name of Ricardo da Silva Basao.

By then they were looking for him everywhere because Interpol considered him the ringleader of the largest scam network that operated in Europeso much so that eight search and arrest warrants were issued against him in different Spanish courts, in addition to arrest warrants in Germany, France, Italy, Holland and Uruguay.

He had been doing the same thing for more than a decade, each time with more sophisticated methods.

The journalistic coverage of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia talks about the impact that the Argentine scammer had created on the European continent.

Raúl Ricardo Hougham from Entre Ríos arrived in Spain in the early ’80s and it was never known what he lived on until the Civil Guard He was arrested in Madrid the first time, for fraudin mid-1985. He was already using false documents, because the ones he had on him when he was captured identified him as Jesús Ortiz Damasco, a Spaniard.

Prison – as they say – served as a school for crime, because there he learned to perfect his methods. It was a lack of judgment on the part of the Carabanchel prison authorities to entrust a fraudster with tasks in the new prisoner identification department, where he was in charge of taking the fingerprints of newly arrived prisoners. He learned a lot in that task that allowed him Improve your document forgery techniques.

He was released from prison two years later and specialized in the theft and forgery of credit cards and traveler’s checks, which he obtained through a group of accomplices with skilled hands to extract wallets from other people’s pockets.

He was doing well, but the police got in his way again. He had been free for just over a year when a team of agents from the National Police Fraud Group detained him in the hall of Malaga airport. He was wanted for stealing and falsifying bank documents.

On that occasion, Hougham did not surrender easily: he tried to escape at gunpoint, which led to a spectacular chase among hundreds of terrified passengers waiting for their flights.

In Carabanchel prison, in Madrid, where he was arrested for the first time, he learned to improve his forgery techniques. The prison was demolished in 2008

Wholesale cards

He was given a light sentence and was soon back on the streets, where he set up a real system of producing stolen and counterfeit cards. In a short time he left a trail of scammers.

Hougham and his accomplices obtained the credit cards and checks through a network of paid pickpockets, and after manipulating them, several passers-by They converted them into cash in banks. and shops in tourist towns.

It was not difficult for them, because what we know today as “online banking” or network authorizations did not yet exist and they used those old devices that printed the numbers and raised letters of the cards on a paper receipt. When payments or withdrawals were rejected, around 48 hours later, it was too late.

In just over three years, this teamwork allowed Hochbaum and his team to make millions of dollars. However, the Argentine scammer began to feel that the police were closing in on him, even though at that time he had used at least ten false identities.

One day in 1992 he decided to leave Spain, although not permanently. He wanted to go back, but better.

With a false identity, he first traveled to Argentina, where he spent time in his native Colón, where in addition to friends he had already set up a business to launder money, and then he traveled to Brazil, saying that he wanted to spend a few days on the beach.

However, his plan was far from being a vacation: by then he had already made contacts in Rio de Janeiro with a plastic surgeon to modify his fingerprints so that he could return to Europe with another false identity that was much more “armored” than the previous ones. The surgeon achieved the alteration changing the pads of the fingers and with those new fingerprints – to which he added a new appearance – Hougham forged the passport of a Spanish descendant, Juan Carlos Mandado Jaurego, with which he applied for nationality.

With that new identity he returned to Spain in mid-1993. Very soon he verified that the fingerprint change operation had been a success, because in December of that year the Civil Guard arrested him and detained him in Malaga as a suspect. He left a few days later, when those false fingerprints did not match those in the criminal record. Only months later, the civil guards would discover, embarrassed, that they had gotten their hands on the most wanted scammer in Europe and let him go.

Soon, the old methods of the “Plastic King” became obsolete and were replaced by card cloning and sophisticated data theft methods at ATMs (Franziska Gabbert/dpa)

When he was arrested in Barcelona on May 13, 1994 – 30 years ago today – Raúl Ricardo Hougham continued using the false passport in the name of Juan Carlos Mandado Jaurego, but on that occasion the document was not enough to avoid prison.

The Civil Guard and the Spanish justice system were not impressed that the fingerprints of the supposed Spanish descendant did not match those of the most wanted fraudster in Europe. Identification was made by other methods and with the help of Interpol.

Months later – when he was already behind bars – his skin implants became infected and fell off and the original fingerprints were once again drawn on his fingertips. It was something that the investigators had anticipated, so they took their impressions again so that there was no doubt about Hougham’s identity.

For a time, prison was not an obstacle for the prisoner to continue managing his businesses and the money laundered through a shell company called Cofía y Cía, based in Montevideo. Credit card scams didn’t stop either, because by then Hougham’s son, Harom Jorge, and daughter-in-law, Miriam, both 24 years old, managed the organization’s networks..

The lucrative “company” continued to operate for another five years, until Harom and Miriam were arrested on December 13, 1999 in Barcelona.

Soon after, with technological advances, the old methods of the “King of Plastic” became obsolete and were replaced by card cloning and sophisticated data theft methods at ATMs.

Raúl Ricardo Hougham was released in mid-2004 after spending almost a decade in Barcelona’s Modelo prison. Once on the street he wasted no time and He left Spain for the United States, where he settled in Miami.. It is presumed that there he started a new life with the loot from his scams, which was never recovered.

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