Identity thieves use sophisticated techniques to steal money

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Leah Broadway was running on the treadmill at her Alexandria gym when someone stole her purse from her car parked outside.

The thieves got just about all they needed: passport, checkbook, bank card and Social Security number. But with the threat of identity theft so prevalent, Broadway knew just what to do. She canceled her credit cards. She closed her bank account and opened a new one. When the second account was drained the next day, she closed it and opened a third.

None of that mattered. The thieves got what they wanted that day in September. Identity thieves are getting more and more sophisticated and harder to stop. The ring that stole Broadway's purse has tentacles from central Virginia to Baltimore and even reaches into Spain. Police say the scam is increasingly difficult to track because the criminals are on the move from one jurisdiction to another and act so quickly after they steal an identity that they are counting their money before the victims know how badly they've been compromised.

Broadway knew things had taken a strange turn when her bank called and said someone had cashed a $1,490 check in Baltimore County using her name and identification -- and the check that was cashed belonged to a woman she knew.

The other woman was inside the gym at the same time as Broadway and also lost her purse in the midday heist. The thieves had targeted three cars in the parking lot and gotten at least $8,500 in cashed checks and stolen items from those gym victims. They tried to steal an additional $13,000 by attempting to cash more checks.

The criminals did it using an increasingly common, three-tiered identity-theft scheme: First, they steal purses and wallets and turn them over to a ringleader. The ringleader plots how and where to access victims' bank accounts, often ordering more thefts in other cities. And then a separate group of runners goes into banks to cash fraudulent checks -- made out from one victim to another -- often at drive-through windows, police said.

One of the victims' bank cards ended up in Zaragoza, Spain.

"I felt really helpless," Broadway said. "I was mad, but I felt more like . . . like I don't have anything."

Broadway's bank told her that the impersonator unsuccessfully tried to cash two other checks that day totaling $3,490.

The scam was similar to the even more far-reaching identity-theft operation that victimized Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his wife, Anna, after her purse was stolen from a Capitol Hill Starbucks in August 2008. The ring caused more than $1.5 million in losses to at least 10 financial institutions. One of two ringleaders, Leonardo Zanders, was sentenced Jan. 22 in Alexandria federal court to more than 16 years in prison. Twelve people have been charged, and 10 have pleaded guilty in the case.

But in the case outside the gym, thieves left investigators with a long line of fraudulent bank transactions and very few leads.

"We're not very close to an arrest at this point," said Sean Casey, the Alexandria police detective assigned to the cases.

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