- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) An office manager at the H&R; Block tax-help company used customers' names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth to steal their refund checks, withdraw cash from their bank accounts and obtain credit cards in their names, prosecutors say.

The two-year scam was punctuated with shopping sprees during which the employee and three accomplices used the credit cards at various malls and picked up extra cash other people's cash from bank machines, according to a federal complaint.

The case is another example of the spread of identity theft, a crime that feeds on the loss of privacy to technology and can drain victims' savings and ruin their credit.

U.S. Attorney James Comey announced three arrests in an unrelated case in November in what he said was the largest such theft in U.S. history, involving 30,000 people and millions of dollars. He called it "every American's worst financial nightmare."

In the new case, filed in federal court in White Plains, scammers reportedly used change-of-address cards and the taxpayers' personal information to divert victims' checks, credit-card applications and other mail to the suspects.

Ivy Johnson, LaTasha Edwards-Hamlett and Catherine Pointer, all of New Rochelle, and Charles Griffin, of Mount Vernon, have been charged with mail fraud and other crimes. They are due in court Jan. 22.

The scheme began to unravel when postal Inspector Richard Tracy found a common thread among 27 New York persons from the Bronx, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam who were affected by the phony changes of address: They had all been customers at the H&R Block office in White Plains in 2000 and 2001, when Miss Johnson worked there.

"Tracy did a good job to find out what they all had in common H&R Block," said Eileen Bitzer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "These individuals who used all this personal information, they got it from the woman who was the former H&R Block employee."

Mr. Tracy also tracked an Internet credit-card application to Mr. Griffin's home phone, and when Mr. Griffin was confronted, he reportedly implicated Miss Johnson, saying she had used her laptop computer at his apartment to make the credit-card application and had directed him to fill out some change-of-address cards with information she gave him.

Mr. Griffin also implicated Miss Edwards-Hamlett, who reportedly told the inspector that she had mailed some of the fraudulent change-of-address cards and had set up post office boxes, using false information provided by Miss Johnson, to receive credit cards.

She also admitted going on shopping sprees with the three other defendants, using the credit cards to make purchases and ATM withdrawals, authorities said.

In a separate scheme, the group reportedly obtained a phony Connecticut identification card by using the names of an unsuspecting co-worker of Miss Edwards-Hamlett's, Mr. Griffin's picture and birth records provided by Miss Johnson. The card was used to open a bank account in White Plains to receive a fraudulent check for $5,080, the complaint said.

Miss Johnson's attorney, Susanne Brody, did not return a call seeking comment. Mr. Griffin's attorney, Joseph Vida, and Miss Edwards-Hamlett's attorney, Patrick Burke, refused to comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office said it did not have a name for Miss Pointer's attorney, and there was no phone listing for Miss Pointer.

Miss Bitzer said H&R Block cooperated fully, and company spokeswoman Denise Sposato said H&R Block, like many other companies, requires a subpoena before disclosing employees' information "to protect the privacy of its clients and employees."

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