Massive identity theft scheme uncovered in Florida: Stealing ID from teachers and sick people

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Everywhere our info is stored, whether in a corporate database like the recent Epsilon email breach, on a PC or even in office machines - somebody can access it and hurt you.

Just last week, 12 people were indicted in a $1.2 million ID theft case here in S Florida. According to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and the U.S. Secret Service, the ringleaders bought information from Jasmin Rembert, who worked in the personnel office at the Broward County School Board, and Erica Hall and Sharelle Finnie, who worked in medical offices. (See Update below)

The School District employee handled teacher certifications, and had access to the state database that included teachers' birth dates and Social Security numbers from all over Florida. The two medical office assistants reportedly gave personal and financial information from patients' records to people allegedly involved in the ID theft ring.
All three were paid for the information, according to officials, and could face up to 35 years in prison and up to $1.25 million in fines if convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to commit identity theft. The medical assistants also face charges of violating HIPAA medical privacy laws.

With the stolen information, federal authorities said, these crooks made themselves "authorized users" on bank accounts and credit cards. They drained accounts and ran up charges as much as $128,000, according to the U.S. Attorney. They too could face more than 35 years in prison and heavy fines.

Florida was ranked number one in identity theft cases for 2010, with 21,581 complaints registered by the The Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel Network.  This means that nearly 9% of all identity theft cases in the country occurred in Florida.  To put this in perspective, the number two state, Arizona, had only 6,549 or less than 3% of the nation's identity theft cases.  Florida had over three times as many instances of identity theft as the closest entry to it on the list.

Why So High?

One potential reason for the high number of identity theft cases in Florida is the number of people who choose to live in the state when they retire.  Of the registered identity theft cases in Florida, 24% of them involved thefts made to acquire government documents and benefits from government sources such as Social Security.  This doesn't mean that the only ones at risk are retirees, of course; identity theft to commit bank fraud or credit card fraud was also common in 2010 with each having almost 3,000 reported cases.

Threats to your data security can come from places you think are secure, like your workplace, your doctor's office or even your neighborhood hospital --as we saw in the case of Eric Drew.   Eric was in the hospital fighting for his life, afflicted with a type of cancer that is normally terminal, when he soon started to receive an onslaught of phone calls -not from his family, but from bill collectors. Eventually, with the help of local news media, the identity of the thief was revealed -- a lab technician who had access to Drew's medical information while conducting blood tests. This led to an unprecedented arrest and the first federal conviction under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). (For more info see earlier blogs here and here:  Eric Drew lawsuits.

Whether your personal information is used to clean out your bank accounts, file false tax returns, steal your home equity or obtain medical benefits, the crime can affect you for years to come. Everyone should ask questions about how personal data is being used, and take steps to monitor data and your identity to help catch thieves before they wipe you out.
See UPDATE: Sept 30th: Former Broward School District employee sentenced to five years for teacher ID thefts. Victims of the ring suffered losses totaling about $1.2 million, according to federal court documents.

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With the rise of the incidence of identity theft, it is frustrating to know the identity thieves have the nerve to steal from sick and old people. What they should do before going in a retirement home or getting admitted in the hospital is to ask the reason why they are asking for your personal information or bank and credit account information, for that matter.

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