Having your home or your car burglarized can be genuinely traumatic, a psychologically damaging violation of your sense of security. Yet those crimes can pale in comparison to the damage caused by identity theft. What’s the theft of personal property, after all, compared to the theft of — by at least some measures — your actual self?
In February of 2021, the FTC kicked off its Identity Theft Awareness Week with the news that it had received 1.4 million reports of identity theft in 2020, which doubled the number from 2019. It might even be fair to argue that identity theft is a second pandemic in its own right. Although identity theft has risen sharply in recent years, it has been building for a long time. We thought it might be instructive, in that light, to take a look at some of the most notorious identity theft cases of the last couple of decades.
1. Philip Cummings: Low-Level Employee, High-Volume Breach
One of the highest-profile early identity theft cases revolved around a man named Philip Cummings, who spent a few months working for a company that marketed one brand of credit-checking terminals used by businesses across the country. He only worked for that firm for a few months, but when he left, he helped himself to a generous severance package in the form of a spreadsheet filled with usernames and passwords from client companies.
He sold those credentials to 20 or so criminals, who in turn used them to access the credit information of an estimated 33,000 victims. At the time of Cummings’ conviction, authorities guessed that the scammers had netted $50 million to $100 million. The three main credit reporting agencies, and the various companies that support the credit industry, revamped their security processes in the aftermath of the highly publicized breach.
2. Abraham Abdallah: Restaurant Staffer Hunts Big Game
One of the weirder high-profile cases in the early part of this century involved an enterprising restaurant employee who successfully stole the identities (and money!) of over 200 A-list celebrities and business moguls from Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey to George Soros and Ross Perot. Abraham Abdallah’s technique was built on brazenness and persistence, not finesse: He’d compile information about his target, then use that to wheedle or cajole further information from the target’s staff or entourage, or customer assistance reps at companies where they did business.
Abdallah eventually parlayed a handful of email accounts, voice mailboxes and a cell phone into access to billions of dollars in assets. His scam came unglued when he requested that Merrill Lynch transfer $10 million from a tech CEO’s account, contradicting standing instructions from the legitimate account holder. Police talked up Abdallah’s skills after the arrest, but later coverage emphasized his sloppiness and the sheer good luck (and bad security practices) that kept him “under the radar” for so long.
3. James Rinaldo Jackson: Fan Boy To Fraud Artist
A lot of criminals are caught because they talk about their crimes. James Rinaldo Jackson went further: He pitched a Hollywood producer on a movie about identity theft, and to prove his bona fides, he sent the man detailed dossiers on dozens of Hollywood heavyweights…including the producer himself. The movie deal went nowhere — Jackson was already in jail at the time — and he would go on to successfully defraud many of the people in those dossiers and many others as well.
Jackson’s fixation with impersonating others began in childhood when he idolized local boy Elvis Presley and tried hard to be Elvis. Instead, he outgrew that stage, becoming the obsessive fan who wanted to learn literally everything about heroes like Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. This extended to their personal lives, he managed to gain access to their social security numbers, credit card information and more.
While he never defrauded Spielberg and Winfrey (they were his heroes, after all), he quickly realized he could monetize his skills by turning them to use against other celebrities and business moguls. Incredibly, his big-dollar spree started while he was already in jail for insurance fraud and small-scale identity theft. When he was released in 1999, he doubled down, using the then-new internet to speed his research. He turned his cash into purchases of diamonds, which he thought of as untraceable, and then turned the diamonds back into cash to fund his lifestyle.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the diamond-selling world is small, and his purchases stood out like a sore thumb. The diamond-sellers — not brokerages, insurance companies, or authorities — brought him to law enforcement’s attention, which led to his arrest in 2000. He would plead guilty to all 29 charges against him.
4. Dushaun Henderson Spruce: The Man Who Became UPS
Most identity thieves steal a person’s identity. In one of the odder cases to gain widespread attention, a Chicago man briefly — but successfully! — turned his apartment into UPS’ headquarters.
Dushaun Henderson Spruce committed this brazen and doomed scam by simply submitting a change of address form to the U.S. Postal Service, which duly changed the corporation’s headquarters address from Atlanta to Spruce’s North Chicago address. As a result, among the thousands of pieces of mail delivered to his home were checks totaling approximately $58,000, which he deposited into his account.
This unusual case of identity fraud caused national news, not because of the dollar amount stolen, which was modest, but because it was so shockingly easy. The USPS has since tightened its security measures to make address fraud harder, but it remains a concern.
5. Malcolm Byrd: The Dark, Dangerous Side of Identity Theft Cases
What do you picture as the “worst-case scenario” for identity theft? Losing your life savings? Spending years restoring your credit? Those are all bad things, but it can always be worse. Suppose, just for a minute, that an identity thief uses your name and identity to commit crimes. It’s a great deal for the criminal: A career felon with someone else’s identity instantly becomes a first-time offender, is given a slap on the wrist and released to offend again.
The true owner of that identity isn’t as lucky as the plight of Wisconsin man Malcolm Byrd demonstrates. A man arrested on drug charges in 1998 gave Byrd’s name to officers, and for years afterward, the real Byrd was arrested time and again for the imposter’s crimes. His case came to wide attention after journalist Bob Sullivan told his story on NBC News.
Credit issues can typically be fixed by dealing directly with the three main credit bureaus, but clearing yourself of a criminal record incurred through identity theft is less straightforward because there are simply so many law enforcement levels and so many databases involved. One local lawyer interviewed for the story suggested that the most effective fix for Byrd was to have his name and SSN legally changed. Internet searches show no new mentions of Byrd’s case in the intervening years, so he may indeed have been forced to that extreme expedient.
Prevention and Vigilance Protect Against Identity Theft
One of the biggest takeaways from these stories, and the millions more like them, is that we as individuals can’t count on institutional safeguards to protect us from identity theft. While safety measures have gotten better, in part because of the white glare of publicity surrounding these notorious cases, your actions and habits are just as important.
First, educate yourself about prevention. There are many easy ways to prevent identity theft (or at least make it less likely) and make your online and electronic identity — your “digital footprint” — more secure. Use Spokeo’s people search tools to look up names, phone numbers, addresses, or emails of people (and companies) you interact with, to make sure they’re legitimate. It also helps to read up on the scams reported to the FTC and other authorities, so you know what you should be watching out for. The FTC’s annual Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book is an excellent reference for that kind of information.
When prevention fails, vigilance can help minimize the damage. You’re legally entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the three reporting bureaus, so if you space them out, you can have a fresh one every four months. As Malcolm Byrd’s case shows, it’s also a good idea to do a criminal records check on yourself periodically. Scrutinize your bank and credit card statements for dubious transactions. If your mail stops arriving when it should, follow up with the post office. Finally, for additional peace of mind, the dark web monitoring that is coming soon with certain Spokeo memberships (e.g., a Spokeo Protect membership) can tell you if your sensitive data comes up for sale in the internet’s seamy underbelly.
The bottom line? Identity theft is a genuine threat and one that needs to be taken seriously, but there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself.
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Identity Theft Awareness Week Starts Today
- NBC News – Man Pleads Guilty in Huge ID Theft Case
- Wired – Greatest Net Dupe in History?
- NBC News – ID Thief To the Stars Tells All, Part Three: He Was Paul Allen for a While
- NPR – Man Allegedly Used Change of Address Form To Move UPS Headquarters to His Apartment
- NBC News – The Darkest Side of ID Theft
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2020