How Jay-Z Sparked a Champagne Theft Ring
In 2006, rapper Jay-Z singlehandedly changed the market for high-end champagne. Until then, the luxury bubbly of choice had been the $500-a-bottle Cristal, which was one of rap’s most frequently mentioned brands, along with Mercedes-Benz and Gucci. But in his music video for “Show Me What You Got,” Jay-Z waves away a bottle of Cristal while seated at a Monte Carlo card table, then nods in approval as the waiter presents a gold bottle of Armand de Brignac with a raised-pewter logo in the shape of the ace of spades.
Almost immediately, demand for the then-unknown champagne skyrocketed. U.S. sales of the $300-a-bottle wine jumped from 20,000 bottles a year in 2006 to some 60,000 in 2011. It surfaced in trendy nightclubs around the world and was embraced by Hollywood A-listers, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Oprah. After the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 NBA Championship, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki was seen taking a victory chug of Armand de Brignac from a magnum-sized bottle.
But as the champagne known as the Ace of Spades has become the go-to bubbly for the jet set, it has also become a favorite target of credit credit fraudsters, according to wine merchants and a liquor security expert Vocativ contacted.
“Ninety-nine percent of the fraud attempts [we see] are for this high-end champagne,” says Alex Gorelik, director of operations for Wine Anthology, a retailer in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of people who try to buy Ace of Spades and can’t afford it, [so] they use fake credit cards.”
At Yankee Spirits in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, Wine Director Joe Astukewicz routinely stops illicit orders for Ace of Spades on the store’s website. Astukewicz says the telltale signs of a bogus order are generally easy to spot, such as when a shipment is designated to a third party or the billing address fails to match that of the credit card.
One Los Angeles-based wine store owner, who asked to remain anonymous, says any order for Ace of Spades immediately raises a red flag. “It’s one of the ones we watch because it’s very popular among people who are trying to fraud us out of product.”
Along with Ace of Spades, Cristal continues to be a target for scammers. Jay-Z disowned the brand in 2006 after Cristal’s chief distributor, commenting on its popularity among hip-hop artists, dismissively remarked that he couldn’t stop them from buying it.
The rapper turned instead to Armand de Brignac, which a small French vintner produces. After the champagne’s appearance in Jay-Z’s video, the winemaker signed a distribution deal with New York-based Sovereign Brands, which now distributes the wine in 120 countries. (A Sovereign spokesperson said the company was unaware of any criminal activity involving the champagne.)
In the U.S., the bubbly has attracted the attention of foreign scammers, who are responsible for most of the fraudulent purchases of Ace of Spades. “I would say most of the attempts we come across are people picking it up in the U.S. but for export to a foreign country,” says a security expert who thwarts liquor store fraud.
He explained to us how the scam works: Thieves send out dozens of “blanket emails” to retailers and generally have the most success with mom-and-pop stores, which don’t have the kind of security measures used by larger merchants. Cases of champagnes are generally shipped to fake corporations (we saw correspondence from “BlackMotor Corp.” and “Vos Logistics”). Then couriers—often unsuspecting marks found on websites like Craigslist—help transport the bubbly to places like Russia and countries in Africa, where demand for fleeced Ace of Spades is highest.
Catching the masterminds behind the frauds is nearly impossible. In the U.S., the security expert says, thieves quickly sell the pilfered champagne to after-hours clubs or somebody who will pay “30 cents on the dollar for it.” While overseas, authorities can catch only the duped couriers.
The irony here, of course, is that there’s a downside to getting Jay-Z’s stamp of approval. As Yankee Spirit’s Astukewicz points out, “There’s definitely a street market for [Ace of Spades], and criminals will find a way to get it.”