Bills put squeeze on identity thieves
By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Greg Wiles
On Oct. 16 "Ron Brech" spent money like there was no tomorrow, buying luxury goods at Fendi, Burberry and Gucci.
The shopper splurged at the Louis Vuitton store at Ala Moana Center, buying a pair of leather sandals for $411 and later returning for three bags costing more than $1,100.
The trouble was, the real Ron Brech, a 54-year-old Kailua resident, was 3,900 miles away in Japan, preparing to fly home from a three-week vacation. The imposter turned out to be 28-year-old Quincy K. Au, who later pleaded no contest to charges. Au was shopping with Brech's money while waiting to be sentenced in another identity theft case.
"This thing has really screwed up my life," said Brech, looking over a table covered with papers accumulated while trying to straighten out more than $50,000 in fraudulent charges and bank transfers. He's still untangling the mess.
Victims like Brech are one reason the state Legislature passed eight bills related to identity theft this year, including one that makes it a felony to possess someone's personal information without their authorization. Gov. Linda Lingle is expected to sign six of the measures into law today.
"The bills provide one of the most comprehensive sets of protections for consumers in the nation," said Mark Recktenwald, head of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
That's welcome news because Hawai'i has been moving up the national rankings of most identity theft cases per capita.
RISE IN IDENTITY THEFT
Last year 810 people from Hawai'i reported identity theft problems to the Federal Trade Commission, ranking the state 25th in terms of victims per 100,000 population. That was up from 33rd a year prior, when 640 people reported thefts. Even with the increase, officials believe the problem is far greater because many victims don't report the crimes.
"It's a very significant problem here and nationally," Recktenwald said. "There's a huge impact on victims."
The average consumer loses about $1,200 and takes up to 60 hours to clear up an identity theft case, according to a 2003 FTC survey.
Brech, a facilities maintenance manager, knows the pain of identity theft. Even though Au, the perpetrator in the Louis Vuitton purchases, was caught, Brech has a way to go before he sorts out the mess.
"They (American Express) are still saying I owe them money since they can't figure out what charges are mine and what charges are his," he said.
Brech said he doesn't know how Au got his Social Security number, American Express cards and other account information.
Public defender Jason Burks, who represented Au in court, said his client wouldn't comment for this story.
Brech's case and others like it point to the need for stiffer penalties.
Au had committed identity theft at least once before and was waiting to be sentenced when he used Brech's identity for his Oct. 16 shopping spree.
Jonathan Saatkamp, who used prominent Honolulu attorney Bill McCorriston's identity to get money, was on probation for ID theft, while another thief, Keith Baker, was awaiting sentencing on an identity theft charge when he was caught assuming someone's identity again, said Christopher Van Marter, Honolulu deputy prosecuting attorney and chief of his office's white-collar crime unit.
"It's not unusual for there to be repeat offenders, especially those who are motivated by a crystal meth addiction," Van Marter said.
One of the bills passed this year that Lingle was expected to sign today brings identity theft under Hawai'i's repeat offender statute. People who have a second conviction for identity theft may be subject to minimum prison sentences because of this.
Court records show Au has had run-ins with the law since the late 1990s, including arrests for possession of crystal methamphetamine and shoplifting.
Au's first arrest for identity theft came in relation to a case last July when he walked into the Neiman Marcus store at Ala Moana and produced a credit card he said belonged to his 67-year-old grandfather, according to court documents. He also showed paperwork containing his "grandfather's" date of birth and Social Security number and asked if the store could issue a "courtesy" card so he could shop, court documents said.
The store did that, but also checked on Au's story as he shopped, the documents said. A Neiman Marcus spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of that case, saying she wasn't aware of it.
At the Neiman Marcus store Au picked out a Burberry hat, wallet and handbag. He also selected a Fendi handbag and wallet, bringing the total charge to $1,525, a police affidavit said.
By the time Au went to purchase the items, Neiman Marcus had determined the account to be fraudulent and opened without the consent of the 67-year-old man, whose credit cards and other information had been taken when a car was stolen seven weeks earlier, a police affidavit said.
Au was arrested and in September pleaded no-contest to the charges of second-degree identity theft and fraudulent use of a credit card. He was allowed to remain free on a $20,000 bond pending his sentencing in December.
"In the meantime, I became his next victim," Brech said.
Brech discovered the theft when he came home from vacation and found out he was overdrawn on a bank account. He deposited money to cover the shortfall and added about $3,500 more.
The next day he found the money he had just put in was gone. Brech further was tipped off when he received thank-you cards from sales people at Louis Vuitton and Burberry even though he doesn't shop there. He went to the stores to announce he was the real Ron Brech and that the police should be called should anyone else try to use his credit cards.
That happened in December when Au decided to return the leather sandals to Louis Vuitton, according to police reports. The store also had been alerted by American Express to the fraudulent transactions.
"Luckily the sales person was sharp enough to remember," said Honolulu Police detective Paul Nagata, who investigated the case.
Reach Greg Wiles at email@example.com.
Correction: Senate Bill 2290 requires consumer notification from businesses or governmental agencies when confidential information is breached, and SB2292 requires proper measures be taken when disposing of records that have personal information. The bill numbers were incorrect in a previous version of this story.