IDENTITY THEFT: What Did You Buy In Bimini? Identity theft hits victims in East Hampton

Originally published March 10, 2005-By Alex McNear

All a thief needs to get a credit card is your name, birth date, and Social Security number.
"It's that easy," James Pascarella, an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, said last Thursday. "You don't want to get paranoid, but there are many ways people can get your personal information."

Mr. Pascarella, who works in the identity theft unit of the Economic Crimes Bureau, said the number of criminal cases involving identity theft have increased dramatically over the last few years - by 249 from 2001 to 2003, he said. Suffolk County ranked 12th in the nation for fraud-related complaints for the year 2003, he said. Statistics for 2004 are not available yet.

Sometimes identity thieves troll through garbage cans to obtain copies of checks, credit cards, or bank statements. They can hack into a home computer, steal preapproved credit card applications or bills from a mailbox, filch a credit card number and security code from a business where the card is used, or buy personal information from thieves willing to sell it.

Not only that: Criminals working for retail stores and restaurants can run a credit card through a hand-held scanner that stores the name and card number before they run it card through a legitimate credit card scanner, according to Mr. Pascarella.

And those are just a few techniques.

On Jan. 5, Lisa Durham and her sister, Georgia Ellis, both of East Hampton, were informed by phone that all three of their business accounts at North Fork Bank were overdrawn. A thief had withdrawn approximately $3,362.

On Monday Ms. Durham said she was still unsure how someone was able to use her First Equity credit card, issued to one business, as well as a North Fork Bank debit card, issued to all three businesses. The credit and debit cards, she said, had never been lost or stolen.

"When I finally saw the bank statement, all the withdrawals were made in Miami," Ms. Durham said, although neither she nor her sister had been anywhere near there recently.

When she asked the bank why they didn't notify her about what some might consider suspicious transactions with the cards, she said, bank employees told her they couldn't possibly review the accounts daily for suspicious activity.

The bank reimbursed Ms. Durham and her sister. She never found out, from the bank or the police, whether the case had been solved.

A call to the North Fork Bank branch in East Hampton, to find out what sort of activity would raise a red flag for the bank, was forwarded to a woman who would not give her name or explain the bank's policy. A second call was referred to a man who also would not identify himself, and who said bank personnel had been told not to speak to the press.

Generally speaking, Mr. Pascarella said, it is difficult to find out how personal information has been obtained, although thieves who are caught sometimes reveal their methods.

Such was the case with Rashawn J. Gant of East Hampton, who was charged on July 26 with identity theft in the second degree and grand larceny in the fourth degree, both felonies. He found papers on the ground that contained the Suffolk County National Bank debit card number assigned to Manuel Pillco and proceeded to ring up $2,351 worth of charges over about a week's time, according to Det. Sgt. Chris Anderson of the East Hampton Town police.

When Mr. Pillco, who also lives in East Hampton, saw the unauthorized charges on his credit card statement, he decided to conduct his own investigation, Detective Anderson said. Because Mr. Gant had paid some of his own bills on the card, he was relatively easy to track down, Detective Anderson said.

People who commit identity theft run the gamut, according to Mr. Pascarella. There are lone operators and teams who divide up the work: one checking mailboxes and another setting up accounts. "We've arrested people for using someone else's credit card, and we've arrested people with a garage full of other people's financial information," he said.

In September, Kenneth Davis of Montauk discovered that $13,737 had been withdrawn using his Southwest Bank of Texas Visa cash card. Over 10 days, the thief had withdrawn cash from A.T.M. machines in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan.

No arrests have been made. The thief needed no more than Mr. Davis's bank card number and PIN code, town police said; Mr. Pascarella said it was possible for hackers to decipher this information while the card holders made transactions on the Internet.

Also in September, Janine S. Mozes of East Hampton was contacted by a Home Depot bill collector, informing her of an outstanding balance of $6,045 for purchases made in June. She told the bill collector she didn't have a Citibank Home Depot card, then she contacted the Citibank Identity Theft Bureau and the East Hampton Town Police.

In this case, it wasn't an existing credit or debit card that was used without her permission. Someone had applied for a credit card in her name. Thieves who rifle though garbage cans and find a discarded credit card offer sometimes apply for it in the name of the intended but have the credit card sent to a different address.

Mr. Pascarella suggested shredding all documents before throwing them in the trash. "And get the kind of shredding device that cuts both ways," he added. He also said that putting up the red flag on a mailbox was an invitation to thieves to rummage through any mail waiting for pickup.

"I recommend people photocopy everything they have - credit cards, debit cards, driver's license, passports - and keep it in a secure, locked place," Mr. Pascarella said. That makes it easier to cancel them if necessary.

Katherine J. King of Montauk was one of the lucky ones. When Citibank called her to confirm her application for a Citibank credit card, she told them she had never applied for one. The application was canceled, and the Citibank people advised her to report the incident to her local police.

Information about preventing identity theft can be found at the Suffolk County district attorney's Web site, www.co.suffolk.ny.us/da/links.htm.