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My Identity Crisis

Barbara Bensoussan

Your credit card hasn’t been lost or stolen. So why is there $10,000 worth of jewelry, airline tickets, and electronic equipment on your monthly statement? Welcome to the world of identity theft, which today is just a few keystrokes away from its next target.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

According to a 2010 report by the Javelin Strategy and Research Corporation, some 11.1 million people (close to 5% of the American population) were victimized by identity crimes in 2009, creating a loss of a whopping $54 billion dollars. Only about 13% of these crimes could be traced to someone known by the victim, and people lost, on average, 21 hours and $373 trying to resolve the situation.

Identity theft became a violation of federal law in 1998 under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, although statutes already stood on the books for credit card fraud, computer fraud, mail and wire fraud, and financial institution fraud. “Identity fraud went onto the books relatively recently, but there were plenty of common law precedents before that,” explains lawyer Richard Horowitz, of Richard Horowitz and Associates. “With people using credit cards and computers more and more, it became enough of a problem to be codified into law. 

“Some techniques to steal people’s data aren’t that hard,” he continues.  “Sometimes thieves get it just through calling up the bank, especially if they know the victim’s mother’s maiden name or social security number. Some hack into computers, or bribe people on the inside to get information.”

At the most old-fashioned level, thieves may steal the actual items that contain your information, pilfering your wallet or your mail. Others engage in “dumpster diving,” rifling through garbage to extract documents with personal information (some shrewdly target business trash for employee records, customer information and register receipts).  Another trick is to fill out “change of address” forms at the post office, to divert information-bearing mail.

Mr. Horowitz avers that law enforcement, unfortunately, is limited in what they can do:  “If somebody threatens you, the cops can’t put a police car in front of your home 24/7. They’re not your personal guards, and they don’t have the resources. The FBI doesn’t get involved in identity fraud unless the dollar amount is above a certain cutoff.” 

The NYPD nevertheless pulled off a major identity theft sting just this past October 7, busting a ring of some 111 people and arresting 86 of them.  Within one year, “Operation Swiper” managed to identify members of five organized credit and identity theft rings based in South Ozone Park, Queens, with ties to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 

According to the NYPD press release, the fraud ring worked in the following way: the crime boss would send lists of credit card numbers to a “manufacturer,” who would re-encode the information into the magnetic strips of blank credit cards, and then emboss the numbers and add the financial institutions’ artwork and logos. Driver’s licenses were sometimes forged to match the credit card names, and dishonest store owners or employees were bribed to give access to customer information. Teams of “shoppers” then used the fraudulent cards to proceed, in the words of DA Richard Brown, “going on nationwide shopping sprees, staying at five-star hotels, renting luxury automobiles and private jets, and purchasing tens of thousands of dollars worth of high-end electronics and expensive handbags and jewelry.” The merchandise was later fenced and resold, usually over the Internet. 

Catching the thieves involved not only surveillance and intelligence gathering, but eavesdropping into conversations in English, Mandarin, Russian and Arabic.  With no lack of chutzpah, some of the criminals made a practice of hijacking each other’s credit card information for profit!  One of them, defendant Nelson Feliciano, allowed other members to rack up $50,000 in charges on his card before reporting the “fraud” to the card issuer.


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