Twenty-one people have been indicted on a total of 154 felony charges in the largest, most sophisticated identity-theft ring in county history, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said the ring operated for more than a year and victimized hundreds of people before an individual incident led police to a series of cases involving the same defendants and similar stratagems. No tally has yet been made of the amount allegedly stolen.
Dumanis said the ring, centered in the blue-collar suburb of National City, was a quantum leap beyond previous identity-theft cases.
Previously, only a few defendants were involved, she said. In this ring, a large number of defendants allegedly had their own assembly-line-type specialties.
According to the indictment, some defendants stole mail, others forged identity cards and checks, and still others cashed checks using the identity cards to dupe unsuspecting clerks and tellers.
Even after a six-month investigation involving various local and federal law enforcement agencies, officials believe that more people were involved in the ring than the 21 who have been indicted. Asked how many more, Deputy Dist. Atty. Corinne Miesfeld, the lead prosecutor, answered, "A lot more."
The alleged ringleader, David Sunas Ramirez, 35, faces 93 counts. His wife, Maria Victoria Ramirez, 39, faces 24 counts.
Maria Ramirez, an enlisted sailor aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Nimitz, is accused of using her access to personnel records on shipboard computers to steal information that allowed her husband and others to create phony military identification cards. The cards allowed other defendants to cash phony or stolen checks, according to the indictment.
None of the cards were used to allow unauthorized people access to military bases, Dumanis said.
In response to the indictment, a special session of the Board of Supervisors was set for Dec. 9 to discuss the county's "epidemic" of identity theft. Dumanis said the session may lead to a request for a budget increase to beef up her agency's identity-theft forces.
"We're going to be very aggressive in identity theft," she said.
Fourteen of the 21 suspects have been arraigned in San Diego County Superior Court. Several are still being sought for arrest. Some of those indicted are citizens of the Philippines.
Nearly unheard of just a decade ago, identity theft is considered one of the nation's fastest-growing crimes.
The Federal Trade Commission reports receiving more than 1,000 complaints per week from victims. Thieves have targeted people living on fixed incomes and taken government checks for celebrities such as Tiger Woods and Rosie O'Donnell.
An industry report suggests that within a few years, financial institutions will be losing $8 billion a year to identity thieves and that 500,000 to 700,000 people annually will be victimized.
Although various protections exist to keep people from having to pay for items bought with phony credit cards, it can take years for people to clear up negative reports on their credit ratings. And draining of bank accounts by identity thieves is not uncommon.
A consumer group says that the average victim spends 175 hours and $800 dealing with the problem.
In the indictments unveiled Tuesday, defendants are accused of forging military identification cards, California driver's licenses, credit cards and checks.
In some cases, phony identification cards were used to allow a defendant to cash an actual check stolen from a mailbox, the indictment alleges. In other cases, the checks themselves were phony.
One defendant was the manager of an apartment where two victims lived.