by Adam Clymer, New York Times
DETROIT - Mildred King paid off her two-story, gabled brick house years
ago. Eddie Foxx did the same with his house, similar but smaller, about
mile away on the city's west side. Neither of them ever dreamed of
Then Bobby William Byrd and Sylvester Murray came along.
According to charges filed by the United States attorney, Mr. Byrd stole
their identities and their homes, arranging fraudulent sales or loans and
In what privacy experts call one of the most heartless kinds of identity
theft, the complaint alleges that they and others "locate houses in the
metropolitan Detroit area that are owned free and clear by elderly people,
assume the identity of the true owner and strip the equity out of the houses
without the true owner's knowledge or consent."
Neither Mrs. King nor Mr. Foxx now lives in their solid, middle-class
houses, and relatives declined to arrange for them to answer telephone
calls. But Paula J. Wendell, assistant special agent in charge of the
F.B.I.'s Detroit office, said that when the victims were interviewed, "they
all said they felt violated."
David Wright, Mr. Byrd's lawyer, did not respond to telephone calls
seeking comment. Chris Andreoff, Mr. Murray's lawyer, would not discuss
While only the cases of Mrs. King and Mr. Foxx have been brought to
court, as many as 10 more cases are under investigation here, United States
Attorney Jeffrey G. Collins and John J. Ryan, an F.B.I. agent, said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft calls identity theft "one of the fastest
growing crimes in the United States." Beth Givens, project director for
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, estimates that 500,000 to 700,000 cases are
reported annually. Probably the most frequent involve using other people's
credit card numbers.
The home sale racket is just one of the more innovative types of identity
theft that officials have encountered. Ms. Givens called it "a particularly
Linda Foley of San Diego's Identity Theft Resource Center, which provides
advice to victims, said: "It sickens me, but it doesn't surprise me. The
creativity of identity thieves is almost endless."
One modest consolation for Mrs. King and Mr. Foxx was that they did not
learn of the crime from a bank's foreclosure letter. Instead they heard
it from Mr. Ryan, who had been alerted by a title company official who
thought a loan application looked suspicious.
Mr. Ryan made his case through the resources of an identity theft task
force of federal, state and local authorities. The four-year-old task force
had photographs of identity theft suspects on file, and Mr. Ryan was able
connect one of them to false identification used in the King and Foxx
The task force's record of collaboration may sound unusual in these days
of Washington recriminations over terrorist hints stalled by bureaucracy,
but Charles T. Craft, chief of police in Troy, said his office, the Auburn
Hills police department, the Michigan state police, various prosecutors,
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service and Postal Inspection
Service had worked together smoothly. They are also helped by the Target
Corporation, which provides space and other facilities.
"All the jurisdictional egos were checked at the door, and we have never
had a problem with that," Mr. Craft said. "This task force focuses on
victims as opposed to who gets the credit. It's really nice if you can lock
up bad guys, and some of the people we are locking up are really bad
If the home sale scheme is a particularly painful form of identity theft,
other cases the task force is working on show other forms of criminal
¶Three Detroiters were charged with using stolen identity
information and an official form to execute $1.7 million in stock options
owned by a retired Kmart executive.
¶A health insurance plan's former employee stole personal
information on 15 people insured by his employer and offered it for sale
$1,000 per person.
¶A ring of at least 15 people ran up $1.5 million in charges on
other people's credit cards over five years, buying designer clothes and
fancy purses. Fourteen have pleaded guilty.
¶A former manager of a car rental company traded information
customers had provided when renting to the manager of a Troy escort service,
in exchange for time with the women who worked there. The escort manager
up $260,000 in credit card charges before he was caught.
Cynthia Oberg, an assistant United States attorney, said that in the
remaining cases in the home theft scheme, about half of the owners still
lived in their houses, while the others relied on them for income
In the King case, the authorities said that Mr. Murray posed as Millicent
Barnett, presented papers showing ownership of Mrs. King's house and
obtained a $99,000 mortgage on it. After he cashed a cashier's check for
$88,739.83, federal agents searched his office and found a notebook
containing the Social Security number of the real Millicent Barnett and
appeared to be many attempts to practice the signature "Millicent
In the Foxx case, Mr. Byrd was accused of posing as Mr. Foxx to sell
home to someone posing as Leslie McIntosh. Both presented fake Michigan
driver's licenses as identification, and Mr. Byrd took home a cashier's
check for $99,805.36 as the proceeds of the sale. Mr. Byrd also is accused
of posing as Nathan Gordon, who cashed $500,000 in checks, according to
Agent Ryan's affidavit. Those "were the proceeds of related real estate
transactions," including the Foxx and King cases.
Jeffrey G. Collins, the United States attorney here, said the victims
"spent years establishing excellent credit, and to be faced with this
trauma, that's not how anyone should be spending their retirement."
Of all the charges that might have been filed, he noted, he had chosen
bank fraud because it carries "a 30-year max." Identity theft carries only
three-year maximum sentence.