NEW YORK – A New York City-based identity theft ring victimized more than 200 people nationwide, including soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, whose information was stolen as they served in Iraq and Afghanistan, authorities said Wednesday.
One soldier returned home at Christmas to find his bank account emptied, authorities said.
The scam resulted in more than $5 million being stolen from accounts around the country, mostly drained from home equity lines of credit. Operating under a loose organizational structure, members of the ring stole identities to establish checking, investment and credit card accounts through Social Security numbers, and sometimes by stealing mail, police and prosecutors said.
They used underlings to launder stolen or forged checks, act as mail drops for compromised accounts or use stolen credit cards, authorities said. Participants received a percentage of the stolen money.
“They were relentless,” Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan said.
The operation was headquartered in Staten Island, with three ringleaders originally from Lagos, Nigeria. Kazeem Badru, Ganiu Rilwan and Okoronkwo Okechukwu pleaded not guilty to charges of enterprise corruption and other charges related to the scam. Attorneys for Badru and Okechukwo did not immediately returns calls seeking comment. Rilwan’s attorney had no comment.
Donovan said 16 other people were indicted on similar charges. An additional 15 people were indicted on lesser charges.
Donovan said the two-year investigation uncovered other operations in Westchester, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Greensboro, N.C., and the Fort Hood, Texas, Army post.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the investigation started after a woman from Libby, Mont., called the NYPD to report that someone from New York was stealing money from her checking account.
“That one call, transferred to the NYPD’s special frauds squad, led to the arrest yesterday of a ring that stole millions from unsuspecting victims,” Kelly said.
Twenty soldiers based at Fort Hood, many of whom were deployed, also were victimized, authorities said. Donovan said more than 2,500 attempts were made to obtain information or change their addresses or get checkbooks. Their losses totaled about $15,000, he said, and the bank put the money back in their accounts.
The suspects, mostly from Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia, face deportation.
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