Identity thieves use sophisticated techniques to steal money

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; B01

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.

Police have surveillance photos from banks showing impersonators who look like the victims. But the pictures are blurry and of marginal use.

Complicating the investigation is that the crimes span jurisdictions and even an ocean. Some of the checks were stolen from Caroline and Chesterfield counties in central Virginia, then cashed in Baltimore County by a person impersonating the Alexandria victims.

"Multi-jurisdictional crimes are so much more expensive to investigate and prosecute," said Joanna Crane, manager of the identity-theft program at the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks such crimes. "It's a smart way for them to do business."

Several days after the theft outside the gym, one of the thieves was almost thwarted at a SunTrust drive-through window because a victim had put a fraud alert on her account. But the woman drove off before the bank teller could call police or lure her inside the branch.

Identity-theft experts estimate that 10 million people are victims of the crime each year nationwide.

Crane said it is common for the identity-theft rings to be "a loosely organized criminal operation."

"You have a guy at the top, and he has maybe a concierge and then there are the runners," she said. "Some people are paid only in drugs. Some people do only transactions where they go into banks and stores."

She said the people who steal purses, wallets and bank account numbers are often those who have access to them. She has seen cases in which thieves are bank employees, janitors or skilled pickpockets.

In Alexandria, four months after the September car break-ins, the victims are still cleaning up their lives, fearing the worst is not over.

Initially, their money was frozen, and they did not have identification to prove who they were. "I didn't have my ID. The banks couldn't verify who I was," Broadway, 26, said. "I ended up having to change my account three times because they kept getting into it."

Broadway said she had to use her birth certificate to get a new ID card from Virginia. In the end, she and the others got their stolen money back from the banks.

Banking is still difficult for her because her account is flagged, meaning she can conduct transactions only in person. She's thinking about switching banks and opening yet another account.

Broadway said she has lived in the Washington area about three years and is from a small town in southern Illinois where "this kind of stuff doesn't really happen." She said she is now much more careful with her valuables.

"It made me want to go home a little bit," she said. "But I wasn't going to let that one thing make me move."

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