Thursday, March 29, 2007
It was a sophisticated scheme that stole identities and scammed more than 100 retailers and companies of at least half a million dollars. On Thursday, representatives from police agencies in Orange and San Diego Counties announced the arrest of six people involved in the identity theft ring. Joanne Faryon is here to tell us more.
The nine-month investigation involved deputies, agents and officers from at least five police agencies, including the FBI and Secret Service. And this is what they found. A ring, lead by one man, the mastermind, who operated a mortgage finance company called First Choice Mortgage.
The mortgage company had access to three credit reporting agencies. It used its access to get personal financial information, and then went shopping online and at high end department stores like Nordstroms.
Glen Revell, San Diego County Sheriff's Office : At this point we really are looking forward to charging these people with up to 180 felony counts that have to do with technology, crime, and computer-related access and the theft of identity. This is clearly a situation where today's technology is being utilized by criminals to victimize people without ever leaving the confines of their own home.
The County Sheriff's Office believes there are more victims out there. And the total of goods stolen could reach up to $1 million. So if you've been contacted by the First Choice Mortgage Company about refinancing, here's what you should do.
Revell : If you've had dealings with this mortgage company, certainly if I had any business with them I would be contacting the Sheriff's department at the Vista station to let them know ‘I might be an additional victim’. This is clearly an individual who utilized people's desire to refinance, and to maybe position themselves a little better fiscally, and then victimize them rather than help them.
Investigators say this is the kind of crime we're going to see more of. One investigator from the district attorney's office in Orange County told me we're going to see a lot less street crime -- things like muggings -- and see more of this computer-based crime.
And it’s not as high-tech as it seems. He says some repeat offenders come straight out of jail and head for the nearest computer store with a stolen credit card to start up their own cyber crime business. And they're not computer geniuses either -- they're often not even high school graduates. And they learn how to do this stuff while in jail.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Here's some advice from FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth.
Foxworth : Never give personal information through the telephone, mail, or internet unless you initiate the contact. You want to store your personal information in a safe place, make sure you take your credit card receipts and other personal information that you get through the mail and make sure that information is shredded before you discard it.
Six people are charged in connection with this crime ring. 50-year-old Michael Alexander Hartsell is accused of being the mastermind behind the operation. He was arrested in Vista today and is in custody with no bail. Three women also face charges, and two of the accused were already in custody in California State Prison.