An international identity theft ring is being accused of stealing funds from the credit unions for the U.S. Senate, Navy, Pentagon and State Department, while also having separately made off with millions from consumers’ home equity lines of credit.
Several arrests have already been made in a case that has prompted U.S. attorneys in several states to join forces with the FBI, the Secret Service, U.S. Postal Inspectors and local police departments to hunt the crooks, according to Department of Justice (DoJ) officials.
So far, four men in three states have been arrested on charges of engaging in an international conspiracy relating to the theft of money from home equity lines of credit.
The suspects are Derrick Polk, 45, of Los Angeles. Calif.; Oludola Akinmola, 37, and Oladeji Craig, 39, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Oluwajide Ogunbiyi, 32, of Springfield, Ill., according to the DoJ’s Public Affairs Office for the district of New Jersey.
According to law enforcement officials, the men illegally withdrew a total of more than $2.5 million from various victims’ home equity lines of credit and were trying to withdraw at least another $4 million.
“There may be other numbers, but I’m not at liberty to talk about that just now,” Erez Liebermann, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey who is involved in prosecuting the men, told InternetNews.com.
The four will have their initial hearings in federal courts in Newark, N.J., Buffalo, N.Y., Los Angeles, and Springfield, the DoJ said. If convicted, each defendant will face a maximum of 50 years in prison and fines of up to $1.5 million.
FBI agents executed three search warrants in Illinois and New York and additional search warrants in New York and California in connection with this investigation, the DoJ said.
Elaborate international criminal organizations
Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, said the suspects are part of an identity theft ring operating in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and elsewhere.
This group is linked to another multi-state ring from which nine alleged participants are facing charges in Virginia, Liebermann said. Three members of the latter ring have pleaded guilty to bank fraud conspiracy in a U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. and are awaiting sentencing.
In that case, Precious Matthews, 27, of Miami, and Ezenwa Onyedebelu, 20 and Brandy Anderson, 30, both of Dallas, pleaded guilty Nov. 20 to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, according to the DoJ.
Matthews and Onyedebelu face up to 30 years each in prison, a fine of up to $1 million and up to five years of probation, while Anderson faces up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of probation.
Another five people were indicted by a federal grand jury on Sept. 25 as part of the investigation into the Virginia ring. One of them, Abel Nnabue, 33, of Dallas, Tex., pleaded guilty on October 16 and faces up to 30 years in prison, a fine of up to $1 million, and up to five years of probation.
[cob:Special_Report]According to the DoJ, the defendants in the Virginia case transferred the money they stole to a foreign bank account, usually in Asia. The account holder, a co-conspirator, would keep some of the money and hand the rest to a courier who would collect money from other account holders in the ring and take it all to the head of the group.
This kingpin would then send wire transfers to various members of the ring. One wire transfer earlier this year sent to a member totaled $51 million, the DoJ said.
The members of both rings searched publicly available records or used fee-based Web databases to search for potential victims with large home equity lines of credit. Once they located potential victims, they used sophisticated social engineering techniques to get information from bank tellers and to get them to transfer money out of victims’ accounts.
They were also clever users of technology. They used prepaid calling cards, Caller ID spoofing services and other techniques to mask their identity, and sometimes even talked telephone company staff into transferring calls from their victims’ phone lines to their own, the DoJ said.
The banks targeted in the scam included Bank of America, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase — as well as Wachovia and Washington Mutual, which were each recently acquired by Citibank and Chase, respectively.
Combating sophisticated identity thieves requires a combination of technology and training, Thom van Horn, vice president of marketing at database security vendor Application Security, told InternetNews.com.
“At the core, you protect the data, which are the crown jewels of the enterprise,” van Horn said. “You need access control, make sure of regulatory compliance, and monitor activity.”
Financial institutions need to layer training on top of that, but the current economic doldrums may complicate things.
“Banks need to do a lot of employee training to make sure they know how to respond to unusual requests — but there’s layoffs, restructurings, mergers and acquisitions, and all of that requires additional training,” he said.
Consumers have to do their part, too.
“As an individual, you have the responsibility not to put personal information on networking and social media sites that can come back to haunt you,” van Horn added.