- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

HOUSTON — Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal knows all too well what it’s like to have someone steal your identity.

Back in February, Mr. Rosenthal noticed a $1,071 withdrawal from his personal checking account, something he could not fathom. He called his bank and found that somebody posing as “Cathy Rosenthal” had written the check.

After assuring the bank that he knew no Cathy Rosenthal and had authorized no such person to draw on his account, the bank, district attorney’s office and police began investigating.

That probe led to the arrest and indictment of Sharon Durbin, 30, of Beaumont. Some law enforcement officials say privately she is likely to be connected with a nationwide ring of such con artists.

Investigators say Miss Durbin has a record of several arrests and convictions in the past decade for felony theft involving checks, prostitution and forgery. She has served three sentences, from a few months to two years.

They say that Miss Durbin had a fake driver’s license, which helped in the ruse, but was trapped by one merchant who required her thumbprint on the check — a print that, once fed into the FBI nationwide database, quickly led police to her.

In all, investigators claim she wrote 21 fake checks on the district attorney’s account, totaling more than $9,000, and bought groceries, computers, drugstore items and gift certificates.

The police still don’t know how Miss Durbin obtained Mr. Rosenthal’s bank account number, but she had checks printed using it, under the name “C. Rosenthal.”

“It’s been a huge hassle,” the district attorney said last week. “I’ve spent way too much time trying to get things straight with all these banks.”

Mr. Rosenthal said he had to shut down his checking account and, at one point, draw money temporarily from his children’s savings account.

After a lengthy investigation — during which police matched Miss Durbin with identity-theft cases in other Texas cities — she was indicted several days ago on a felony charge of passing a fake check. If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

As expected, Mr. Rosenthal recused himself and his office from prosecuting Miss Durbin. A state district judge named a special prosecutor, Wayne Hill, to the case.

Mr. Rosenthal said he hopes his office soon will have additional funding to create a special staff to focus on identity theft. The Harris County Commissioners Court is considering additional money for this growing problem, the Houston Chronicle recently reported.

“It’s extremely difficult to get it all straightened out when you have people running all over the county committing crimes and leaving your name at the scene,” said John Boone, an assistant district attorney who heads Harris County’s check-fraud division.

Miss Durbin is believed to be tied into a half-dozen or more loosely knit identity-theft groups, one unidentified police source said, adding that at least four states are involved in the continuing investigation.

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