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Amazon textbook rental service scammed for $1.5m

A 36-year-old man from Portage, Michigan, was arrested on Thursday for allegedly renting thousands of textbooks from Amazon and selling them rather than returning them.

Andrew Birge, US Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said Geoffrey Mark Hays Talsma has been indicted on charges of mail and wire fraud, transporting stolen property across state lines, aggravated identity theft, and lying to the FBI.

Also indicted were three alleged co-conspirators: Gregory Mark Gleesing, 43, and Lovedeep Singh Dhanoa, 25, both from Portage, Michigan, and Paul Steven Larson, 32, from Kalamazoo, Michigan

From January 2016 through March 2021, according to the indictment, Talsma rented textbooks from the Amazon Rental program in order to sell them for a profit. The indictment describes what occurred as “a sophisticated fraud scheme.”

Talsma allegedly disguised his identity by creating multiple customer accounts with different names, mailing addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers. He supposedly did so to bypass the 15 book limit Amazon placed on textbook rentals.

His alleged fraud scheme involved using Amazon gift cards to rent the textbooks and prepaid MyVanilla Visa cards with minimal credit balances to cover the buyout price charged for books not returned.

“These gift cards and MyVanilla Visa cards did not contain names or other means of identifying him as the person renting the textbooks,” the indictment says. “Geoffrey Mark Talsma made sure that the MyVanilla Visa cards did not have sufficient credit balances, or any balance at all, when the textbook rentals were past due so that Amazon could not collect the book buyout price from those cards.”

As the scheme progressed, the indictment says, Talsma “recruited individuals, including defendants Gregory Mark Gleesing, Lovedeep Singh Dhanoa, and Paul Steven Larson, and other individuals known to the grand jury, to allow him to use their names and mailing addresses to further continue receiving rental textbooks in amounts well above the fifteen-book limit.”

Talsma would call Amazon’s customer service department and claim that instead of the textbooks ordered, he had received other items that could not be returned by mail, like flammable objects. Or he would claim he never received any textbooks, in the hope Amazon would credit him for unreceived goods and forget about the rental. And later, he is said to have taught Gleesing, Dhanoa, and Larson to do the same.

Titles taken included “Compensation,” by Jerry Newman, Barry Gerhart, and George Milkovich, which lists a Buyout Price of $172.05, and “Economics,” by Campbell McConnell, Stanley Brue, and Sean Flynn, which lists a Buyout Price of $108.00.

The scheme appears to have been fairly successful: The indictment says the four alleged scammers stole 14,000 textbooks worth over $1.5m.

If convicted, Talsma faces the potential of significant jail time: up to 20 years for each mail and wire fraud charge; up to 10 years for transporting stolen property; and up to five years for lying to the FBI. If convicted of aggravated identity theft, that would add a maximum four year consecutive sentence, with the other sentences typically being concurrent. ®