Identity Theft Continues To Increase

FBI Says It's Fastest-Growing White-Collar Crime

The FBI calls it "the fastest growing white-collar crime in America."

It’s identity theft and it can happen to anyone, even celebrities. Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Tiger Woods, all of whom have had their identities stolen.

When she first reported on the story for 60 Minutes, CBS News Correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Mary Zupanc, then a staff doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Zupanc's identity was stolen by a ring of thieves in New York.

Although she has not lost much financially, the theft has taken its toll on her emotionally, Stahl reported Tuesday night for 60 Minutes II.

“ I think I'm much more cynical about the world than I used to be,” Zupanc tells Stahl. “ I'm not as willing to take people at face value or - I see the darker side, I guess, of the human condition, if you will. “

It started when someone had Zupanc’s mail forwarded to a new address in Brooklyn, N.Y. She didn't know anything about any change of address until she called to see why her New England Journal of Medicine wasn't coming.

Avoiding Identity Theft
The Federal Trade Commission has started tracking identity theft. Head to their Web site to find out how to avoid identity theft, and what to do if you think you're being targeted.

Or call their toll-free number: 1-877-IDTHEFT.
Dr. Zupanc explains: “And they said, ‘Well, you have - we're sending it to your forwarding address.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me? Forwarding address?’ And they said, ‘Yes, your mail is - we received a request to forward your mail to Brooklyn, New York.’

At the post office, Zupanc learned that these forms are accepted by the postal authorities without any proof of identification – even when the name is misspelled as it was on Zupanc’s form.

Zupanc’s mail was being forwarded to 2022 Church Avenue, Number 147, in Brooklyn - a storefront that rents out mailboxes.

The post office in Minnesota told her to call the postal inspectors In Brooklyn. She did.

“ I said, ‘I'm Mary Zupanc and I have - my address has been fraudulently changed by someone unknown to me, and the address is 2022’- and I didn't finish the address. And he says, ‘Oh, that's a known drp box for a Nigerian immigrant forgery group.’"

That wasn’t all. The inspector predicted what would happen next.

Using the stolen mail, the thieves used credit card numbers to order merchandise and bank and investment account numbers to get pin numbers. Attorneys advised Zupanc that she might even have to change her name to be free of the problems.

It took Zupanc, who has since moved to New York, two years to get her identity back - two years of constant vigilance, persistent phone calls and double checking's. She was always on guard.

She and the district attorney also believe that going public with her story helped. In addition to appearing on “60 Minutes,” Zupanc testified before Congress, hoping to educate congressmen about this $40 billion problem.

It took the post office two weeks after the first TV report to change its policy. Now, when you fill out one of those change-of-address forms, the post office will send a verification notice to both the new and the old address

Two years ago, the federal government began tracking identity theft victims. A hotline set up at the Federal Trade Commssion now receives more than 3,000 calls a week.

In 1997, four of the Nigerians who had targeted Zupanc were caught and convicted. Two remain behind bars, one has been released and one, the supposed ringleader, was deported back to Nigeria.

But others are still stealing identities. Last month, the person who stole Tiger Woods’ identity - 30-year-old Anthony Lemar Taylor - was convicted and sentenced under California's "three strikes" law to 200 years in prison.

In March, the NYPD arrested Abraham Abdallah, accusing him of identity theft on a massive scale. This 32-year-old high school drop-out, employed as a busboy, is suspected of stealing the identities of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner and scores of other famous and wealthy Americans whose names he got from a copy of the Forbes 400 list. Authorities said he had allegedly tried to steal $22 million, using the Internet to get background on his victims. And like the Nigerians who stole Zupanc's identity, he opened mailboxes in some of his victim's names.

Martin Biegelman used to be a postal inspector. Today, he is a fraud investigator for BDO, a large accounting firm in New York City. He met Abdallah in 1986 when the two made an anti-fraud video. Then a teen, Abdallah described on the tape how easy it was to commit fraud. Records show that since then Abdallah has been arrested at least 16 more times - mostly for identity theft.

Biegelman isn’t surprised. Identity theft is a non-violent crime with a high profit margin that can become addictive. And, he says, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do it. All you need is access to the Internet.

“As long as we live in a free country,” Biegelman says, “with ready access to information and information is important - and we're not gonna trto control that - criminals out there will find a way to obtain that information and commit identity theft.”


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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