As nearly everything moves online, financial identity theft instances continue to rise (opens in new tab) and cause havoc for millions.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which tracks consumer fraud and identity theft, says there were 4.8 million complaints received in 2020, an increase of 45% year-over-year. According to the Alte-Novarica Group, 47% of Americans suffered from identity theft in 2020, costing them $712.4 billion.
Most instances of identity theft are minor and involve small numbers of people. This article goes in a different direction, however. Here are some of the most prominent fraud cases to date. Most involve millions of dollars and thousands of victims.
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The first case (opens in new tab) involves Brooklyn, NY-based Abraham Abdallah, who in 2001 was arrested for attempted grand larceny and the possession of forged devices. However, unlike everyone else on this list, Abdallah only went after one type of person: celebrities.
For up to six months, Abdallah used cell phones, delivery services, and faxes to gain access to credit cards numbers and brokerage accounts of celebrities. Among the 217 accounts he accessed were ones for Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffet.
He attempted to steal more than $22 million but was caught before all the illegal transactions occurred. He pled guilty to wire fraud, credit card fraud, and identity theft and served
Abdallah's case is one of the first to involve identity theft in the digital age. He is believed to have served 11 years in prison before being released.
Turhan Lemont Armstrong
In 2019/20, Turhan Lemont Armstrong was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for running a credit card, loan, and real estate fraud scheme, according to the United State Attorney's Office (opens in new tab) for the Central District of California. The illegal enterprise raked in $3.3 million before being shut down.
Armstrong was found guilty on all 51 counts for which he was charged. The criminal and his co-conspirators stole identities and Social Security numbers to open bank accounts, credit cards, and loans. Unlike similar schemes, this one focused on obtaining the Social Security numbers of children who had left the United States. These folks were less likely to check their credit report for the United States.
According to the U.S. prosecutors, "[Armstrong's] criminal conduct was more than a series of bad decisions – it was a way of life. The victims of [Armstrong's] crimes run the gamut: banks, credit card issuers, car dealerships, utility companies, and the people all over the country whose identities [he] stole."
Armstrong was ordered to pay $3,305,609 in restitution as part of his sentencing. In addition, two of his homes, purchased with illegal funds, were forfeited.
Responsible at the time for the "largest identity theft case (opens in new tab) in American history," Philip Cummings defrauded some 33,000 victims between 2001 and 2002. The former help desk worker for a Long Island, NY software company and his co-conspirators ran a scheme that netted them between $50 and $100 million. Cummings' enterprise involved obtaining credit reports from unsuspecting customers, then using this information to drain bank accounts and apply for credit cards.
Cummings plead guilty in 2004 and in 2005 was sentenced to 14 years. The judge said the damage he caused was "almost unimaginable."
Senita Birt Dill and Ronald Jeremy Knowles
From 2009 until 2012, Senita Birt Dill and Ronald Jeremy Knowles illegally obtained personal information like names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers. They filed over 1,000 false tax returns, collecting more than $3.5 million in fraudulent tax refunds.
According to Anne M. Tompkins (opens in new tab), U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, Dill and Knowles used tax preparation software programs to file and submit fraudulent federal and state tax returns. Those filed returns included fictitious information such as income and the amount of federal tax withheld. Then, once they received a refund check from the IRS, they'd deposit it into a personal account.
The criminals were sentenced to 324 and 70 months in prison, respectively, and ordered to pay $3,978,211 as restitution to the IRS.
In this Nevada case from 2018, a former information technology professional, Kenneth Gibson, used personal information to open about 8,000 fraudulent and unauthorized accounts with PayPal. The information Gibson obtained, including names and identifying data, was stolen from his employer many years before.
Interestingly, Gibson's scheme was fully automated using a computer script that ran 24 hours a day. Once the PayPal accounts were opened, the theft would apply for linked credit accounts using the stolen identities.
FBI Special Agent Glen Lovedahl noted (opens in new tab), "He was moving small dollar amounts, and that doesn't necessarily pop up on a company's radar screen."
In total, Gibson was able to steal up to $3.5 million before being caught. After pleading guilty to wire fraud, mail fraud, filing a false tax return, and aggravated identity theft, Gibson was sentenced to four years.
Many identity theft cases end up involving the IRS. Here's one where an IRS agent was the perpetrator.
Nakeisha Hall pleaded guilty in 2016 to using taxpayer information to steal $1 million from hundreds of victims. Sentenced to nine years and two months in prison, Hall was ordered to pay $438,187 in restitution to the IRS.
Hall worked in various IRS offices between 2000 and 2011. Interestingly, one of these, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, is designed to help taxpayers dealing with identity theft issues.
During Hall's sentencing, U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance explained (opens in new tab), "Hall victimized United States taxpayers and jeopardized the reputation of the IRS and its division that is intended to assist taxpayers experiencing problems resulting from identity theft. Today's sentence reflects the outrageous and serious nature of her crime."
Amar Singh and his wife Nehi Punjani-Singh
The creation and use of fraudulent credit cards were the basis of an identity theft ring headed by Queens, NY couple Amar Singh and Neha Punjani-Singh. Along with over 110 others, the two would purchase items at Apple and Best Buy using the cards, then resale the items.
RFID scanners were used to swipe consumer credit card information at retail or food establishments and illegal websites as part of the scheme. Before being busted in October 2011, the criminals had racked up $14 million in stolen money.
Though he faced up to 250 years in prison (opens in new tab), Singh pleaded guilty in 2012 to 5 1/3 to 10 2/3 years. His wife and others pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
For added peace of mind, look at the many ways to protect your Social Security numbers from hackers.