Thieves Steal Homeowners' Identities and Their Equity
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 a mile away on the city's west side. Neither of them ever dreamed of selling.
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 the case.
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 the 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 cruel form."
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 of 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 to connect one of them to false identification used in the King and Foxx cases.
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, the 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 guys."
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 ingenuity:
¶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 at $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 ran 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 security.
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 what appeared to be many attempts to practice the signature "Millicent Barnett."
In the Foxx case, Mr. Byrd was accused of posing as Mr. Foxx to sell his 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 had "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 a three-year maximum sentence.