NYPD cracks ID theft ring that targeted U.S. soldiers
New York City police have broken up a "massive identity theft ring," stretching from Staten Island to a major army base in Fort Hood, Texas, that claimed more than 200 victims - one of them from Long Island.
The victims included 20 active duty soldiers, several of whom were preyed upon while deployed in war zones, authorities said Wednesday.
The loosely organized network of about 35 people is accused of stealing personal information, including mail and Social Security numbers from unsuspecting victims, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said. The data were used to open financial accounts including home equity lines, new checking accounts, credit cards and debit cards. The stolen checks and cards were then sent to accessible mailboxes on Staten Island and in Philadelphia.
Detectives arrested 26 members of the group, many of them Nigerian immigrants, during raids Tuesday in Queens, Brooklyn and on Staten Island, Kelly said. All were arraigned in Richmond County. Prosecutors said 16 are charged with enterprise corruption and grand larceny and face up to 25 years in prison and deportation. The other 10 face lesser charges.
"It takes a certain type of detached cruelty to victimize people in this way," Kelly said at NYPD headquarters.
Authorities believe it is likely some of the 20 soldiers victimized were targeted because they were on deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. About $15,000 was stolen from the soldiers.
"When these men were away, they didn't realize that their identities were compromised until some of them came back," said Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan. "So, they were targets because of the length of time it would have taken for someone to become aware that their identity was compromised."
Authorities estimate the group stole $2.5 million over two years.
Police learned of the network two years ago after a woman from Libby, Mont., reported someone on Staten Island was writing checks from her home equity line of credit, Kelly said. About the same time, prosecutors were receiving a spike in reports of bad checks from banks on Staten Island. An investigation led to the arrest of three people on charges of grand larceny. One of the defendants cooperated, Kelly said.
Kaseem Badru, 38, Ganiu Rilwan, 46, and Okoronkwo Okechukwu, 32, all of Staten Island, were the masterminds behind the network, Donovan said.
Donavan said the ring was centered in Staten Island, but had tentacles that zigzagged across the city, and reached into Atlanta, Greensboro, N.C., and Lagos, Nigeria, where many of the defendants originated.
They set up a loosely organized network of "underlings, recruiters and dupes," to move the stolen assets, with each person receiving a percentage of what they stole, Donovan said.
Kelly called the group "very enterprising," getting bits of information on victims and exploiting the information for more information. While the group was able crack the accounts of 20 soldiers, more than 2,500 separate attempts were made to steal the identities and credit information of military personnel at Fort Hood.
"They were relentless in trying to get information," Kelly said. "Thousands of attempts were made in this case."
Authorities said the Fort Hood cases occurred before and after a shooting at the base in November that claimed the lives of 13 soldiers. None of victims in the shooting that killed 13 soldiers were victims in the identity theft ring, he said.
Kelly said the group appeared to have "inside help" in gaining access Fort Hood personnel.
"In fact, one soldier returned home last Christmas, only to determine that his bank account had been emptied," Kelly said.
The group, was careful in not bringing attention to themselves by maintaining a "sort of low-profile lifestyle," not making many lavish purchases, or sending a lot of money overseas, Kelly said.
Of the 35 members in the group, 16 are from Nigeria, two from Ghana and one from Liberia, Donovan said. Eight others are U.S. citizens and the citizenship of eight others has not been identified.
Donovan said most of charges are "deportable offenses." He said 16 of the defendants are charged with enterprise corruption charges that come with sentences of up to 25 years in prison. He said the charges are part of state version of the federal racketeering statute that allows authorities to charge people for working as a group, increasing the penalties because the organization has a larger effect on society financially than if each were working individually.