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ChoicePoint Data Cache Became a Powder Keg

Identity Thief's Ability To Get Information Puts Heat on Firm

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A01

The man on the phone called himself James Garrett.

Speaking with a lilting accent, the man said he was an executive with a Los Angeles company called M.B.S Financial. He told an employee at ChoicePoint Inc. that he wanted to open an online account with the company to receive electronic reports on people.

Olatunji Oluwatosin, a Nigerian national, pleaded no contest to identity theft in the ChoicePoint case. Scrutiny of the firm is expanding. (Brian Vander Brug -- AP)

Stealing Identities
_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Reporter and author Robert O'Harrow Jr. answered your privacy questions.
_____From Slate_____
Has Your Identity Been Stolen? Here's what you do if you find out your identity might have been stolen.
Databases Called Lax With Personal Information (The Washington Post, Feb 25, 2005)
ChoicePoint Victims Have Work Ahead (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2005)
ID Theft Scam Hits D.C. Area Residents (The Washington Post, Feb 21, 2005)
ID Data Conned From Firm (The Washington Post, Feb 17, 2005)
In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)

It was the kind of request that ChoicePoint, one of the nation's largest information services, gets all the time. Thousands of corporate and government clients rely on the company to provide them with publicly available information on people for help in hiring, fraud detection, journalist research, national security and debt collection.

But the man's call last fall was different, according to a detective's description of the encounter and testimony presented in a later court hearing. Unknown to ChoicePoint, the caller was not Garrett, an actor in the Los Angeles area. Police said he was a con artist involved in a vast identity-theft scam that succeeded in making off with records of at least 145,000 people. The real Garrett was just another victim.

The imposter's attempt to gain access to even more files would not only expose the scam, but spark a national outrage and congressional hearings over whether the nation's growing commercial data industry is doing enough to guard personal information.

Yesterday, the burgeoning scandal led ChoicePoint to cut off access to some sensitive data to thousands of small businesses. The company also announced in filings with the government that two senior executives were under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for stock trades that took place after they learned about the scheme last fall but before they made it public.

On the day the man called ChoicePoint in late September, he was close to getting what he wanted. He had already filed an application for the right to download reports to his computer, for about $15 each, claiming he needed sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers to track down targets of his collection agency.

But to the ChoicePoint employee on the other end of the line, something wasn't quite right. For starters, the caller used a Los Angeles copy store to fax his paperwork to open an account. That seemed strange for a businessman, and even more so when an in-house investigator realized that similar requests had recently been made by others in the Los Angeles area. Something also seemed out of kilter about the local government documents the man forwarded to prove his business existed.

Authorities in Los Angeles were called for help. The officer assigned to the case, a sheriff's detective named Duane Decker, asked the company whether it could lure the man posing as Garrett back to the copy store as part of a modest sting operation. ChoicePoint would convince Garrett he needed to go back to the copy store to sign a faxed copy of his application and send it back to the company.

The ruse worked. On Oct. 27, a man claiming to be Garrett showed up as promised at the Copymat store on Sunset Boulevard. He approached the counter, asked for a document filed for James Garrett and paid the bill.

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