Armenuhi Kartalyan-Oganesian never knew what hit her, but it might
as well have been a punch to the stomach.
Last month, the 37-year-old Glendale resident tried to make a bank
deposit but discovered her ATM card had been canceled over the phone
and a duplicate card issued and mailed to an address in Los Angeles.
“Whoever did this gave the bank my Social Security number, my
mother’s maiden name and her date of birth,” Kartalyan-Oganesian
said. “I have very good credit, which worries me, because they can
request high lines of credit.”
Another woman, Cathy (not her real name) was betrayed in August by
her nanny, who after stealing her employer’s personal information and
obtaining a bogus driver’s license, brazenly ran up $10,000 in
credit-card debt at several department stores -- including two in
“She quit on a Sunday and started shopping on a Tuesday,” Cathy
said. “It was just so frustrating to think she came into my house and
set me up.”
Similar horror stories are played out at an alarming rate in
Burbank, Glendale and the foothills, where identity thieves have
replaced the everyday burglar in the eyes of law enforcement.
The often nameless and faceless culprits steal personal
information and use it to open bank and cellular-phone accounts,
obtain driver’s licenses, manufacture new checks, and even buy or
They rarely pay for their crimes. Their victims, though, are left
to clean up the wreckage, often spending months and years trying to
repair damaged credit.
“At the rate we’re going right now, it’s probably not going to be
too long before everybody who lives in the state of California is
going to know a victim of identity theft,” Glendale Police Det. Bob
Zahreddine said. “It’s that bad.”
Identity theft -- the unauthorized use of personal information to
obtain credit, goods, services or medical information -- has
increased by 130% in Glendale since last year, from 177 cases in 2001
to 381 through Dec. 17.
“It’s surpassed anything else that we handle,” said Zahreddine,
one of four detectives who investigate financial crimes. “The chances
of getting caught are pretty slim, and even if you get caught, the
penalties are pretty lax.”
In Burbank, violent crime is down, but identity theft is up by
more than 60%. Through November, 261 cases of identity theft had been
reported, compared to 160 last year.
“We are absolutely overwhelmed,” said Burbank Police Det. Matthew
Ferguson, who estimates the average identity crook gets more than
$10,000 before getting caught. “There are cases we could solve that
we just can’t get to.”
Last month, Glendale Police arrested 11 people who allegedly used
identification stolen from actors, musicians and studio executives to
make off with more than $500,000 in recording equipment. It marked
the largest case of identity theft ever worked by the department.
The ring used high-tech gadgets, wireless networks and
graphic-design skills to forge everything from checks and credit
cards to fax numbers.
A “high percentage” of identity theft cases, however, go unsolved
because it’s virtually impossible to identify those responsible,
“Since it’s not the real person doing it, the suspect is a
phantom,” he said. “Most of the time, we don’t know who we’re dealing
‘EASIER THAN ROBBING A BANK’
Identity theft is the fastest-growing white-collar crime in
America, expanding at a rate of more than 50% per year, according to
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer information and
advocacy program based in San Diego.
Identity theft has become the biggest source of consumer fraud
complaints logged by the Federal Trade Commission, which recorded
86,000 in 2001. Nationwide, identity theft accounts for annual losses
estimated at more than $2 billion.
“It’s much easier than robbing a bank, and you don’t have to use a
gun,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a former federal prosecutor
who tried identity theft cases. “But you leave quite a path of
destruction in your wake.”
Thieves typically sift through trash cans or mailboxes to find a
person’s address, date of birth and Social Security number. But
investigators are working on even more sophisticated identity theft
rings, including one that paid off a bank insider to provide data on
hundreds of customers, then used the information to set up online
accounts to conduct fraudulent wire transfers of funds.
“This is a crime that operates within our normal daily life,” said
Jonathan Fairtlough, a high-tech and identity-theft prosecutor with
the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. “It’s a crime that you
can commit while appearing to seem normal.”
PENALTIES LACK TEETH
In 1998, federal and state lawmakers enacted laws to curb identity
theft. Violations of the federal law carry a maximum penalty of 15
years in prison, whereas California’s law is punishable by up to
three years in prison.
But investigators say identity thieves are rarely apprehended and
sentenced. If they are, penalties are minimal and rarely include jail
time. Community service and probation are common.
“Crooks know that if they get caught, the punishment is greatly
inferior to, say, robbing a bank,” Ferguson said. “We could end this
very quickly by making the penalties much more severe.”
Investigators say some of the biggest victims of fraud -- banks
and credit agencies -- are partly to blame for the surge in cases,
because they extend credit so rapidly and don’t always check as
thoroughly as they could to make sure applicants are who they say
“I’ve seen companies issue credit too leniently, but I’ve also
seen companies that do an outstanding job of verifying credit get
fooled,” Fairtlough said.
State and federal legislators, including Schiff and Assemblyman
Dario Frommer (D-Burbank), are pushing for stiffer penalties and
other reforms to slow identity fraud.
“We have to give law enforcement the tools they need to
investigate and prosecute, and help innocent victims clear their
names and reputations,” Frommer said.
Schiff, meanwhile, is co-sponsor of a bill that would prevent the
sale of Social Security numbers and keep businesses from demanding
Social Security numbers from customers.
“It’s simply too easy for people to get a hold of identifying
information,” he said. “I think we have to protect some of those
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Fortunately, victims of identity theft are not liable for bills
accumulated by impostors, thanks to federal law. But in many cases,
it can take months, even years, for them to regain their financial
health and restore their good credit history.
“That’s probably the most difficult part, reestablishing credit
once it’s been damaged,” Zahreddine said.
“In reality, most victims don’t lose a penny in dollars,” he said.
“But the amount of money they lose in time, trying to prove their
innocence, is in the thousands.”
After filing a police report, Kartalyan-Oganesian had to alert all
three of the major credit bureaus. She lives in fear of her credit
being ruined by the person or persons who have access to her vital
“I never thought this would happen to me,” she said. “I don’t feel
Cathy’s former nanny was arrested by Burbank Police and sentenced
to three months in county jail and probation.
It’s small consolation for Cathy, who said she will have to
contact creditors every three months for the rest of her life to
request fraud alerts be placed on her accounts to guard against
“The whole thing makes me so angry,” Cathy said. “She had the
nerve to say I was mean to her.”