The fear of identity theft is ever present in our digital world. With more and more of us simply tapping a credit or debit card onto a screen with little more than a glance, or ordering most of our goods online, credit fraud is on the rise. Furthermore, identity theft in the truest form, where one’s social security number is stolen and used for fraudulent purposes, is still a real fear, so much so that more and more companies are touting services that can protect one from identity theft. As much as some of the attention identity theft gets may be fear mongering, in reality, identity theft is a serious issue and if one becomes a victim of such a crime it can have devastating consequences for the victim and have long, even life long, financial and personal ramifications. While identity theft may not be as prevalent as some advertisers may have us believe, it is still a problem, and, as seen by the ten cases below, can wreak havoc on those affected by its lives and livelihoods.
10. Bari Nessel
Bari Nessel was a seemingly reputable editor of a lifestyle magazine who moonlighted as an identity thief in the late 1990s. Nessel’s first foray into the world of identity theft was when writer Linda Foley applied to the magazine to review restaurants. As was standard for most places of employment she had applied to in the past, when Nessel asked Foley for her social security number, date of birth and a copy of her driver’s licence, Foley obliged. Nessel promptly used this private information to open up numerous credit cards in her name destroying Foley’s credit rating in the process. After being caught and charged with 31 counts of identity fraud Nessel merely received probation. Perhaps due to her lax sentencing Nessel moved to Texas where she was arrested again in 2003 for identity theft. This time she received over three years in prison.
9. Adrian Richards
The victim of Britain’s worst case of identity theft, Adrian Richards fought a three-year battle with German tax agencies over unpaid taxes. The problem arose after Richards’ passport was stolen in 2003. From there, the identity thief racked up a bill of over $200,000 USD in unpaid taxes in Germany. They also used the passport, with a photo of someone other than Richards on it, to set up a business on the Isle of Man that was subsequently charged with breaching business practices codes, a move which prompted the U.K. government to fine Richards over $50,000 USD. After a three-year legal battle and pleas to authorities, Richards finally convinced both the U.K. and German governments that he was a victim of identity theft, though who stole his identity remains a mystery.
8. Wendy Brown
If we could only turn back time and relive our youth. Sadly, Cher taught us how impossible that was in 1989; apparently, Wendy Brown never got the message. The 33-year-old mother from Wisconsin was so desperate to be a cheerleader that she actually stole her own 15-year-old daughter’s identity and enrolled in a Green Bay high school to fulfil her dream. With a history of identity theft already against her, she still managed to convince school officials she belonged for a while, until the Principal discovered that Brown’s daughter was in fact enrolled in high school in Nevada. To add insult to injury, the check Brown wrote to pay for her cheerleading outfit bounced. Brown was charged with felony identity theft.
7. Jerry Alan Whittredge
Jerry Alan Whittredge did not necessarily commit identity theft in the classic sense of stealing another person’s identity and posing as them. His version was more identity impersonation. His deception managed to dupe the Navy and NASA into not only allowing him access to a top secret NASA facility over a span of eight months where he learned classified information about their space shuttles, but also granting him access to a Texas Naval base where he took part in a T-45 flight simulation. In order to accomplish all of this, Whittredge merely told NASA he was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who also happened to be a member of the CIA. Jerry was eventually discovered after someone finally did some fact checking and faced five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
6. Anndorie Sachs
When you receive a phone call from Social Services telling you that your newborn has tested positive for narcotics and you are now under investigation, but you’re certain you haven’t given birth in years and have never done drugs, you may have a serious problem. Anndorie Sachs found herself in this unenviable position not long after her car had been broken into and her driver’s licence stolen. While Sachs protested being the child’s mother, Social Services continued its investigation of her and her family, threatening to declare her as an unfit mother and take her four legitimate children away. Even after finally performing the obvious-from-the-start DNA test proving that the drug addicted woman who gave birth to the poor child wasn’t Sachs, she was still expected to pay the hospital bill for the birth because her name was on it.
5. Richard Phillips
The case of Richard Phillips is like something out of a movie, albeit a weird one. When Brittany Ossenfort decided to live with a woman named Michelle who she met through mutual friends, it seemed like a good idea. Michelle became not only a roommate to help with bills, but a good friend as well. Such a good friend in fact that Michelle started to dress like Brittany, and went so far as to dye and style her hair the same as Brittany’s. One would think that when Michelle got a tattoo on her hand to exactly match hers, Brittany should have been concerned. It wasn’t until Brittany received a call from police telling her ‘she’ had been arrested for prostitution and needed to bail ‘herself’ out of jail that the true motivation behind Michelle’s copycat appearance became clear. As if that weren’t enough, Michelle wasn’t even a woman at all, but a man named Richard Phillips, living not only with, but as Brittany Ossenfort all along.
4. Frederic Bourdin
Sometimes it’s impossible to comprehend what possesses people to do what they do. Case in point, French Frederic Bourdin, the “Chameleon” who has allegedly adopted over 500 false identities. His specialty was to claim the identities of missing children. In one instance he posed as a missing 15-year-old boy from Texas, and actually reunited with his ‘family.’ Despite being French and not sharing the same eye color, the family was convinced Frederic was their boy for five months until fingerprint and DNA analysis proved otherwise. He served six years in prison for his false identity claim, but that didn’t deter him; he was arrested twice more for claiming to be Spanish orphans and subsequently imprisoned again.
3. Gerald Barnbaum
A trained pharmacist who lost his licence in 1971, Gerald Barnbaum wasn’t content to make his comeback in medicine behind a counter with pills, rather, he wanted to go a little bigger and become a doctor. Instead of going the natural route and training in medicine, Barnbaum moved from Illinois to California in the mid 1970s upon which he stole Dr. Gerald Barnes’s identity and began practicing medicine in Southern California. For three years his identity theft went unnoticed until his lack of medical knowledge led to the death of an undiagnosed diabetic patient he was treating. This led to his first arrest as a fake doctor when a staff member at the clinic reported him. Barnbaum didn’t stop his love affair with medicine and identity theft upon release from prison for manslaughter however. He went on to spend the next 20 years stealing identities in order to practice medicine, including practicing at a clinic that handles physical exams for FBI agents, and, after being caught again, going so far as to escape from a prison transfer van to, yet again, find work as a physician. Gerald Barnbaum is currently incarcerated.
2. Abraham Abdallah
Abraham Abdallah was a busboy from Brooklyn who decided that he wanted to steal people’s identities and take their money. But Abdallah didn’t want to settle for ordinary citizens, instead he decided to assume the financial identities of over 200 of the wealthiest people in America, Steven Spielberg and Ted Turner among them, to perpetrate an $80 million scam. In order to accrue such a vast amount of money from the rich and famous, Abdallah used public library computers to find every available piece of information on his victims and then call the victims’ bank posing as their financial advisor. He would get one piece of information at a time regarding the bank account and always from a different clerk, until he could build enough information to actually use the account, like a puzzle. Seems incredibly simple, no? For a while it was, but as Abdallah began trying to access larger accounts, suspicion on him grew until he was caught in 2001, and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
1. Philip Cummings
Philip Cummings was behind one of the largest credit card fraud cases in U.S. history. The immigrant from England worked for only a few months at a small software firm in Long Island that made software for retail business to perform credit checks, but the damage he caused was upwards of $100 million in credit fraud. Essentially, Cummings stole the credit information of nearly 35,000 Americans and then, along with his accomplice, sold the credit information to criminals for $60 each. The results were extremely damaging to those affected, with credit ratings ruined, bank accounts over drafted in excess of $40,000 and lives destroyed. Along with his co-conspirators, Philip Cummings was arrested. He pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.