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You may have been ripped off in credit card scam

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Check your statements, AmEx users: While customers ate at the Plaza Diner in Fort Lee, the owners were literally swiping their credit card numbers — part of a scheme that, with at least two other North Jersey eateries, pulled in $1 million in bogus charges, authorities said.

“We believe that there are hundreds of unsuspecting victims in Essex, Passaic and Bergen counties” who were ripped off and don’t yet know it, Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow warned.

UPDATE : Ex-con charged in loan shark scheme surrenders

Dow spoke at a news conference Friday announcing the arrests of seven people, including one with direct organized-crime ties.

Despite media reports to the contrary, only four people were arrested yesterday. Two people had been picked up earlier and helped provide information that led to yesterday’s quick strikes. It says so right in the news release from Dow’s office:

Police Dismantle Major Regional Loan Sharking and Credit Card Scam

The seventh, a convicted felon who appears to be at the center of the operation, was still at large at last check — and finding him not be that simple: 32-year-old Guy Madmon of Fair Lawn gave Las Vegas authorities the slip when he was 19 after being charged with a home invasion in which he strong-armed the victims, CLIFFVIEW PILOT has learned.


He eventually turned himself in to the local FBI office and moved east after selling his Las Vegas home in 2003.

He later was accused of being a major player in an Amsterdam-based Ecstasy ring but testified against others in Manhattan after making a deal with prosecutors.

The Jersey eatery investigation began with the usual astronomical-interest loan that is the stock-in-trade of strong-armed hoods who prey on the desperate.

Having trouble keeping their businesses afloat, the owners turned to the sharks, authorities said. When they fell behind in payments, as often happens in these deals, the wiseguys demanded credit card numbers, Dow said.

Soon, the owners of the Plaza — as well as those owners of two other New Jersey eateries — were in league with the real criminals, she said. Now they are charged with conspiracy and credit card fraud, serious offenses.

One victim reported more than $7,000 in unusual charges on his credit card. Others began coming forward as well.

Working with American Express, Dow’s investigators had little trouble tracking down where the cards were used and when. It wasn’t long before they connected the dots, drawing a straight line to the Plaza, as well as the long-closed Baloco restaurant in Clifton and Italianissimo in Caldwell.

Although seven people have been charged to this point, there will be more, Dow said.

It was a Bergen County customer who first reported a strange charge for several thousand dollars that got the ball rolling.

Soon, a probe was in full swing involving Caldwell police, Dow’s office and the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, as well as the U.S. Secret Service. They gave it a name, of course: “Operation Cash Flow.”

Arrested Friday: John Paladino 44, and his girlfriend, Darlene Priester, 37, both of Clifton; Dean Ulan, 35, of Bloomfield; and Ramzi Musleh, 49, of Clifton.

Dow’s investigators already had Paladino’s cousin, Katherine Paladino, 48, of Hasbrouck Heights, and Robert Giaconia, 32, of Passaic, in custody.

“It shows you one thing — you’d better read your bill,” Dow said. “You’d better read your statement every month. Be forewarned.”

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