Hoping to crack down on one of the nation's fastest-growing crimes, federal investigators on Friday revealed a new task force that has been targeting identity thieves in Southern California and cautioned the public to be on guard: Your mail carrier, mortgage broker or even the server at your favorite restaurant may be to blame.
U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang, chief of California's Central District, said at a Santa Ana news conference that investigations this year have led to 45 arrests tied to a variety of alleged schemes, including indictments this week against several mortgage brokers who have been accused of selling information about their clients.
Yang and officials from the Secret Service and U.S. Postal Service warned that despite the task force's success, its investigations and those by other law enforcement agencies have only put a small dent in identity theft.
To enable citizens to protect themselves, they outlined some of the alleged scams that have been uncovered.
One of the lengthier investigations that culminated this summer, called Operation French Fry, found that servers at the Cheesecake Factory, T.G.I. Friday's and other restaurant chains secretly swiped diners' ATM and credit cards through a "skimmer," which is similar to the machines legally used to charge cardholders.
The data recorded on skimmers were then provided to alleged ringleaders Kresimir Matuzovic and Nour-Eddine Messaghrou, who have been accused of re-encoding or restripping the information onto their own cards.
They then allegedly went to banks and changed the personal identification numbers, or PINs, to allow them to withdraw money and buy large money orders at post offices.
According to investigators, information from more than 150 accounts was compromised, and more than $1 million was stolen. Messaghrou used money orders to put a $50,000 down payment on a Lamborghini and obtain a $1-million loan to buy a condo in Brentwood, they said.
"I wouldn't let my credit card out of my sight," said William P. Atkins, inspector in charge, Postal Inspection Service, advising consumers how to protect themselves from skimmers.
Eight others were indicted in the alleged scheme, which was detected by a bank investigator who alerted authorities after noticing a pattern of PIN changes by the same individuals.
One defendant, Yacine El Bouri, 23, of Brentwood, remains a fugitive.
Another sting, Operation Paper or Plastic, led to the indictments of 20 people who allegedly took part in a widespread ring in which tax refund checks and credit card information were stolen by unidentified postal workers.
The alleged mastermind, Ky "Yellow" Vu of Las Vegas, is accused of making counterfeit identification cards that other defendants used to cash refund checks and credit cards to get cash advances at banks and casinos, or buy Rolex watches, computers and other merchandise that could be fenced, investigators said.
Investigators estimated that about $1 million was stolen over a four-year period.
The indictments of the mortgage brokers this week were the result of Operation Broken Trust, an investigation that found people allegedly sold information from credit reports to others who used it to refinance homes, to purchase drugs and high-end merchandise, and for other purposes.