Office steps up focus on ID theft

Baltimore County assigns prosecutor to the cases full time

November 21, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

The cases are complicated. They involve long, winding paper trails. And in recent years, they have come up more and more often.

With a handful of identity theft cases cropping up each week between the shoplifting, domestic violence and traffic crimes that dominate the District Court dockets, Baltimore County prosecutors sometimes found themselves ill-prepared to prove the plots and schemes of modern thieves.

To deal with the problem, the county has assigned someone to the job full time.

"They'd come up for trial. There wouldn't be witnesses there. There'd be no records. There were cases having to be dismissed or postponed," said prosecutor Marsha Russell, who won her first prison term in an identify theft case last week.

After spending nine years in the domestic violence unit of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, Russell is turning her attention to identity theft crimes. Although other state's attorney's offices have prosecutors who handle identity theft in addition to other white-collar crimes, Baltimore County appears to be the only jurisdiction in the metropolitan area that has a prosecutor focused exclusively on identity theft.

The unit - comprising Russell and a paralegal, both of whom have received specialized training in identity theft cases - was established in July and has been busy ever since. The two are juggling about 30 cases, and given the rapid clip of identity theft crimes being charged by Baltimore County police, they can expect many more in the coming months.

The Baltimore County Police Department has three supervisors, 10 detectives and one civilian assigned to its economic crimes squad. About a third of the 2,400 cases the unit handles each year are identity theft crimes - and police spokesman Bill Toohey said that number represents "only the tip of the iceberg" of all such crimes that occur.

About 10 million Americans fall victim each year to identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That includes several hundred thousand in Maryland. Only a fraction of those result in criminal prosecutions.

In Baltimore County, 880 people were charged with identity theft crimes in the first nine months of this year.

"It is the most complicated area of prosecution that I have ever worked in," said Kim Detrick, the District Court division chief of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. "It is something that your average attorney can't just pick up one of these cases and walk into court and think they can effectively try it. It is way too complex."

Identity theft cases often cross jurisdictional boundaries, involving federal investigators from the Secret Service, the U.S. Treasury Department and the FBI, in addition to local law enforcement. They can entangle a defendant in one state who has stolen the identity of one or more victims clear across the country. And proving that a crime has occurred requires a methodical and detailed presentation of evidence patched together from credit card companies, banks, phone companies and Internet providers, prosecutors said.

"It's a paper trail and a computer trail," Russell said. "It's all evidence pointing to the defendant. There's no one who actually saw her applying online for a credit card in someone else's name."

In the case that resulted in a prison sentence last week, a 48-year-old Essex woman pleaded guilty to identity fraud, a misdemeanor, and a theft scheme over $500, a felony, in a complicated case that ended with the suspect trying to flush down the toilet a wallet that contained fraudulent credit cards as police searched her home.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II sentenced Arlita L. Albritton-Boston to 10 years in prison, suspending all but five years and ordering her to repay $686.69 to American Express and $3,157.79 to Bank of America. Using at least six different aliases, she has racked up a criminal record that includes several theft and forgery convictions, according to court records.

In the most recent case, Albritton-Boston fraudulently opened four credit card accounts in the name of a 26-year-old woman who used to rent the same South Marlyn Avenue townhouse where Albritton-Boston lives. Russell said Albritton-Boston obtained the woman's Social Security number and date of birth from mail that arrived at her old address.

Pretending to own a paralegal service and a mortgage refinancing company, Albritton-Boston also applied for more than 10 credit reports - including two for the victim in the case - from Equidata Inc., a company that supplies credit reports to different companies for a fee, according to court documents.

Sifting through that kind of evidence was exactly what made the flood of identity theft cases so difficult for District Court prosecutors to handle, said Detrick, the division chief who supervises a staff of 13 lawyers.

"It requires dealing with banks and credit card companies and an area of the law that is much more difficult to prove than a shoplifting, which is a typical District Court case," she said. "With that, you call one or two witnesses who saw it and they come into court and tell the judge what they saw."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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