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Area patients stung in veterans' center identity-theft scam

FORT WAYNE, Ind. - In the court documents, the victims of this stolen identity scam are Wal-Mart and Verizon.

Each company was bilked out of thousands of dollars when, authorities say, a woman and her husband used other people's Social Security numbers to set up credit-card and telephone accounts.

But while the companies lost money, other people in the case say that they are the bigger victims.

Names and Social Security numbers of 48 patients at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, including three from northwest Ohio, were taken in the identity scheme, and some of them said that's worse than a loss of money. “If you go to the hospital, you have to give them your Social Security number. You've got to trust someone,” said Gordon Carmean of Delphos. “It's kind of scary.”

Authorities said Nicole Brown and her husband, Ray Brown, of Fort Wayne, took patients' Social Security numbers from medical documents when Mr. Brown visited the medical center as a patient between March, 1998, and February of this year. The couple is accused of setting up credit-card and phone accounts using the other people's identities.

Also charged are Ms. Brown's mother, Rose Eldridge, and sisters, Tamika Eldridge and Rosetta Holmes, who allegedly received the bills addressed to the victims and threw them away in exchange for merchandise paid for with the illegally obtained credit cards.

Other bills were sent to vacant homes, records stated. Authorities said Ms. Brown set up phone accounts in the victims' names for her friends, some of whom she charged a fee of $15 to $50. Court records state that Wal-Mart lost about $35,000 and Verizon lost about $21,000.

An investigator said two patients reported to the Veterans Administration that their identities had been stolen, which didn't raise many red flags since such crimes are common.

But at the same time, three other patients at the hospital told the postal service that the same thing had happened to them.

Authorities said they looked into the crime and came up with more than 40 victims, all patients at the medical center.

Rodger Temple, who lives in Antwerp, said he first heard about the case last week when he received a letter from the U.S. attorney's office in Fort Wayne, letting him know about the indictments. Mr. Temple, a Vietnam veteran, said he is still unclear about what happened. “Everything I know I read in that letter,” he said.

Another Antwerp man, who authorities say has since died, was listed as a victim in the case.

Mr. Carmean said he had to cancel checks, check his credit report, and contact all creditors to alert them to the stolen identity. “It was a big hassle,” he said. “They charged over $1,000 worth of stuff.”

Mr. and Mrs. Brown are each charged with two counts of fraud by wire, and Mrs. Brown is also charged with three counts of misuse of a Social Security number. The other three suspects are charged with fraud by wire and aiding and abetting. A trial is set for Sept. 18.

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