Identity theft robs victims of more than their names Losses from fraud may exceed $1 billion a year, experts say

October 13, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF Sun staff researcher Jean L. Packard contributed to this article.

After moving into his Baltimore apartment the other day, Leon Bean couldn't turn on a light. And that was the least of his troubles.

Since 1996, when his birth certificate was stolen in a burglary, the 25-year-old nursing assistant has been jailed for a crime he did not commit and has received bills for necklaces and groceries he did not buy. The electric company wouldn't turn on his power because it said he owed $1,400. But it was a debt run up by someone else.

"I had to prove who I was, that I was the real Leon Bean," he said.

Bean is the victim of identity theft and fraud, crimes that are sweeping the country, costing financial institutions millions of dollars while causing grief for victims.

A Baltimore man is accused of assuming Bean's identity, setting up a checking account in Bean's name and defrauding his bank of thousands of dollars.

Yet, two years after the burglary, Bean's struggles continue.

"Every time I go into a bank and try to set up an account, they look at me like I'm crazy," Bean said.

Once the province of organized rings such as Nigerian fraud artists who swindled area residents of millions of dollars last year, common crooks have found identity theft easy and lucrative.

The proliferation of such fraud has prompted a proposed law in Congress and a recent report by the General Accounting Office that stressed the threat of identity theft. The report offered no estimates of nationwide losses, but some experts say they exceed $1 billion a year.

"This has become the path of least resistance for criminals," said Jim Bauer, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service, which monitors identity theft. "At first, sophisticated rings were into it. Now, it is becoming commonplace."

Last year, the Secret Service arrested 9,455 people on charges of committing financial crimes while using someone else's identity. The cost to victims, including banks and individuals, was more than $700 million in those cases.

Consumer advocates say criminals assume the identities of about 350,000 people a year. Some authorities worry that the widespread availability of personal information -- on the Internet, from data bank services and private companies, and from government agencies -- could cause an explosion of identity theft.

"It's absolutely scary, the amount of information that's out there about you," said Katie Nohe, consumer advocate for the Maryland Public Research Interest Group.

Identity theft is nothing new. In the Bible, Jacob dressed as his twin and received an unintended blessing from his father, Isaac. Wild West outlaws and mobsters took on others' names to escape detection.

Thieves have forged checks and swiped credit card receipts, stealing millions from companies and wreaking havoc with victims' credit reports.

When banks and credit card companies began monitoring purchases with computers and alerting cardholders to unusual buying spates, thieves created their own accounts -- in others' names.

Essential ingredients

Now, when rummaging through trash cans and ferreting through mailboxes, crooks are seeking papers containing Social Security numbers and birth dates, the essential ingredients of identity fraud.

"It's an epidemic," said Lt. Jay Fisher, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's property crimes section. "This is a huge web we're caught in."

Bean, the Baltimore victim, knows that well.

A few months after the burglary, he received a notice from the Home Shopping Network and another from Provident Bank about purchases and overdrawn accounts.

When Bean tried to close a checking account, he learned that there was a warrant for his arrest on charges of depositing stolen checks.

For someone else's crime, Bean spent a day in jail.

Bean professed his innocence, but few believed him -- until he was directed to Baltimore police Detective David Wimmer. Eventually, Wimmer arrested a city man accused of stealing Bean's identity, getting a Motor Vehicle Administration learner's permit and establishing the fake account, police said.

Prosecutors then dropped the charges against Bean.

Timothy Mark Barnette, 25, of the 1000 block of Edmondson Ave. is scheduled for trial next month on charges of theft and using false documents in connection with the false bank account.

In a Howard County case last month, Brenda Moon of Baltimore received a notice about a loan application she supposedly had requested. But she had never asked for one, and she alerted national credit bureaus.

Within days, she got a call from Norwest Financial Leasing Inc. in Ellicott City, where a woman was seeking a $5,000 loan in Moon's name to take her children to Disney World.

Moon called Howard County police detectives, who waited outside Norwest Financial until the $5,000 check was issued. Police arrested a couple in the parking lot as they left the business.

Larry Lamont Bush, 38, and Yvette Denise Canty, 35, both of Baltimore, were charged with theft and released on bail.

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