6 suspected in ID theft via court Web site

December 21, 2007

By Bruce Cadwallader, The Columbus Dispatch


At least six central Ohioans are now under investigation by the U.S. Secret Service for hacking into a government Web site and stealing Social Security numbers to create false credit accounts.

Worthington detectives turned over evidence to federal authorities after a state crime lab determined that more than 270 people nationwide might have been victimized by a security lapse in the Franklin County Municipal Court Web site.

Police found that someone was randomly feeding Social Security numbers into Clerk Lori Tyack's site, which contained personal information for thousands of people charged with misdemeanors, some guilty of only a speeding ticket. Once a number was hit on, the name, address, age and other information could be used to obtain credit cards and open bank accounts.

The victims are from Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Wyoming, said Worthington detective Ted Paxton. Many might not know that their identities have been stolen.

The case was turned over to the Secret Service because it investigates misuse of the Internet for identity theft and because the case had broadened to include so many potential victims, Paxton said.

"That would have been a career case for just one of our detectives, so we asked for help from federal authorities," said Sgt. John Slaughter. "The Secret Service will take the case to the assistant U.S. attorney's office. We now have six suspects."

A Secret Service spokesman contacted Wednesday said the agency would have no comment on the investigation.

No one has been arrested yet. Worthington police seized the records and computers of two people, who implicated others, Slaughter said.

One suspect told detectives how the scam worked. She told them she also had access to federal tax returns as a former seasonal tax preparer for an H&R Block office that is now closed.

The investigation began after a 22-year-old Worthington woman reported unauthorized purchases on her credit cards. Police found that merchandise was sent to an address other than hers. When they went to that address, they found receipts and banking information in the names of 72 people, and a laptop that included 200 more names.

Paxton said he has identified more than $40,000 in illegal purchases of clothing, shoes, phones and electronics.

The thieves "were using a laptop stolen from Wyoming, but they only had it for a couple weeks," Paxton said. "You can actually see where they went from (Tyack's) Web site to Equifax (a credit bureau) and then on to credit-card companies and banks."

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation did a forensic evaluation of computer files and uncovered the names of potential victims. Worthington police didn't have the officers to locate them all, Slaughter said.

Tyack said she was aware of the federal investigation but not involved in it. In July, she limited the information available on the Web site.

The Municipal Court site has permitted public searches of court records since 2001 and generates more than 16,000 hits per day, Tyack said.

Officials said they will try to locate anyone affected by the thefts, but individuals can also take steps to protect their own credit by verifying information on free credit reports and keeping constant vigilance over their accounts.

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