- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

NEW YORK Federal authorities broke up what they called the biggest identity theft case in U.S. history and charged three men yesterday with stealing credit information from more than 30,000 people, draining victims' bank accounts and ruining their credit.
U.S. Attorney James Comey said the losses were calculated so far at $2.7 million but would balloon to many more millions and affect consumers in every state. He called the case "every American's worst financial nightmare multiplied tens of thousands of times."
"With a few keystrokes, these men essentially picked the pockets of tens of thousands of Americans and, in the process, took their identities, stole their money and swiped their security," the prosecutor said.
Consumers can report identity fraud complaints to the Federal Trade Commission by calling 877/ID-THEFT or by submitting electronic forms that are available on the department's Web site at www.ftc.gov.
Authorities said the scheme began about three years ago when Philip Cummings, a help-desk worker at Teledata Communications, a Long Island, N.Y., software company, sold an unidentified person passwords and codes for downloading consumer credit reports. Mr. Cummings was paid roughly $30 for each report.
The information was passed on to at least 20 other persons, who then set out to make money from the stolen information, prosecutors said.
"The potential windfall was probably far greater than the content of a bank vault, and they didn't even need a getaway car. All they needed was a phone and a computer, or so they thought," said FBI Assistant Director Kevin P. Donovan.
More than 15,000 credit reports were stolen from Experian, a credit history bureau, using passwords belonging to Ford Motor Credit Co., officials said.
Ford Motor Credit spokeswoman Melinda Wilson said the company will change the way it handles consumer data. She would not disclose specific measures the company would use to bolster privacy safeguards.
"We're doing everything we can to keep the bad guys from getting this information," Miss Wilson said.
Officials said thousands of other credit reports were stolen from companies such as Washington Mutual Finance Co. in Crossville, Tenn.; Dollar Bank in Cleveland; Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Illinois; the Personal Finance Co. in Frankfort, Ind.; the Medical Bureau in Clearwater, Fla.; Vintage Apartments in Houston; and Community Bank of Chaska in Chaska, Minn.
Victims have reported losing money from their bank accounts, seeing unauthorized charges on their credit-card statements and having their identities assumed by strangers.
Mr. Comey said the apparent motive was simple greed and that a terrorism connection was not suspected. He said prosecutors were sending letters offering help to the more than 30,000 victims.
He said the investigation was still in its early stages, though prosecutors had "found the guys who opened the fire hydrant of fraud."
In addition to Mr. Cummings, the FBI also charged Linus Baptiste and Hakeem Mohammed in the fraud. Mr. Baptiste downloaded hundreds of credit reports with Mr. Cummings' access passwords, the FBI said. Mr. Mohammed has pleaded guilty to mail fraud for making changes to individual credit accounts.
Staff writer William Glanz contributed to this report from Washington.


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