Sunday, September 13, 2009

Identity-Theft Victim Meets Her Identity Thief

Back in January, Michelle McCambridge found herself staring into the face of the woman who stole her identity.

Only a week earlier, she learned that someone had taken out credit cards in her name and racked up thousands in charges. A federal agent had shown her a surveillance photo. But the image didn't ring a bell.

Now the woman in thick-rimmed glasses was standing there at McCambridge's women's-casual counter at J.C. Penney at Southcenter, asking to open a credit account.

McCambridge's heart lept. She excused herself and secretly got the store's security crew to train their cameras on the woman.

And in those few minutes, the 23-year-old retail clerk and college student set in motion a federal investigation that has brought down what authorities say is a prolific ring of ID thieves responsible for victimizing at least 39 people.

"Out of how many customer-service desks, out of how many registers she could have gone to, and she had to come to me?" McCambridge wondered this week.

"It was fate."

Now five Seattle-area people, including a mother and daughter, have been indicted in U.S. District Court in Seattle with a litany of fraud charges. Three of them have already pleaded guilty and are facing prison sentences.

The federal agents and the prosecutor on the case say none of it would have been possible without McCambridge's presence of mind.

"I'm very proud of her," said Joseph Velling, a special agent for the Social Security Administration. "It was heroic."

The 23-count indictment charged Jeania Dyson, 36; Gordon Burrage, 44; Stephanie Locke, 29; Valorie Dade, 58; and her daughter, Lakaia Dade, 36, with bank fraud, aggravated ID theft and misuse of Social Security numbers.

Burrage, Locke and Lakaia Dade have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and face sentencing this fall before Judge Robert Lasnik.

Velling and his partner, Special Agent Matthew Lavelle, said the investigation required complicated detective work to find patterns and connections in otherwise-ordinary, scattered complaints of credit-card fraud.

Unexpected bills

But it really began one day in January when McCambridge got her mail and discovered several bills for department-store cards she had never asked for.

She had just become one of about 9 million people whose identification is stolen and misused every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"I was kinda furious," McCambridge said.

Turns out, McCambridge's father went to high school with Velling. So he called him. Velling said he'd look into it, and he got store surveillance footage showing the woman opening a card in McCambridge's name around Christmas time.

The woman later turned out to be Locke, but they didn't know that then. All they could tell was that it was a black woman with distinctive glasses.

Then she came into McCambridge's store.

"I was a little panicked; I was a little shaky," McCambridge said.

"But I was angry."

McCambridge made a lame excuse to step away. She ducked over to the fragrance counter and found her manager. They got the store security cameras to zoom in and capture an image of a fake ID Locke was presenting with another woman's name, Velling said. But police couldn't arrest Locke right then, so she left when the credit application was refused.

Now they had more images of the suspected thief, but still no name to attach to the face.

Then, a break.

In February, local police arrested Burrage at a Kohl's store as he tried to open a fraudulent credit-card account. The security video had also gotten an image of a woman with him.

Lavelle said he recognized her as Dyson, who has previously gone to prison for bank fraud.

By checking old police reports, the agents were able to connect Dyson with Locke in previous cases, they said. Eventually, they tied all five suspects to a black Cadillac Escalade that had been used in credit thefts from Lacey to Lynnwood.

By April, the agents had rounded them all up.

Victims take action

Looking back, agent Velling says what made this case special was that McCambridge and other victims had gotten involved and contacted stores to save their security tapes.

That doesn't happen very often, he said. Usually, people just file a police report, cancel their accounts, and the cases languish for lack of evidence and resources.

"Identity-theft crimes are some of the most difficult criminal cases to investigate," Velling said.

It is not that law enforcement does not know what crime was committed. Rather, it is a simpler question — who did it? Store surveillance video and photos can be the difference in making the identification of the criminals and a successful prosecution of the crime."

As for McCambridge, she's getting ready to go back to college and move on with her life. But the sense that someone took her Social Security number — something you can't simply cancel — means she feels a sense of permanent vulnerability.

"Yes, no violence was done to me, but that's my identity," she said. "It's a violation of your space and who you are."

McCambridge says she is actually looking forward to seeing Locke again later this month — when Locke will be standing before the judge for sentencing.

"I want to ask her if she remembers me," McCambridge said.

"It's nice to know it's one of the biggest crimes out there and we can get someone behind bars for it. I'm glad there's going to be some justice served."
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