As part of their employment with various Toledo-area businesses, Robert L. Taylor, Adam R. Shank, and Dominique L. Lawson had access to clients' names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
But instead of keeping the information confidential, the three allegedly sold the identities - more than 125 of them - to another man, Robert Hines.
Known as Snake, Hines is accused of using the information to open credit accounts and rack up thousands of dollars in purchases and services.
According to a 31-count indictment filed this week in U.S. District Court in Toledo, the four were all involved in a scheme to steal the identifications and fraudulently obtain credit cards, cellular telephones, and utility services over an eight-month period in 2007 and 2008.
Hines, 25, and Mr. Taylor, 38, both of Toledo; Mr. Shank, 25, of Weston, Ohio, and Ms. Lawson, 22, of DeSoto, Texas, are each charged with multiple counts of false loan applications, possession of another's identification, and wire fraud, as well as one count each of conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.
If convicted, they each face time behind bars, including a mandatory two-year sentence on the aggravated identity theft charge.
"What they did, as the indictment alleges, is Robert Hines acquired from the other three codefendants people's names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates. Using that information, he would apply for credit cards, apply for utility services, and purchase cell phones. Of course, he gave an address other than the person's actual address," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Karol said. "Using those identifications, they obtained about $50,000 in goods and services."
According to the indictment, Ms. Lawson was employed at a physician's office in Toledo. She is accused of taking the personal information from patient records for 11 individuals at some point during November and December of 2007 and providing it to Hines.
During the same period, Mr. Shank was working at a cell phone kiosk at Westfield Franklin Park, the indictment stated. He is accused of obtaining information for about 100 people from client records and forwarding that information to Hines.
Mr. Taylor was employed as an insurance agent at northwest Ohio insurance agencies and is accused of providing Hines with personal information from about 15 clients during November and December of 2007, according to the indictment.
Federal prosecutors declined to name the businesses involved. Ms. Lawson, Mr. Shank, and Mr. Taylor could not be reached for comment.
The indictment further charges that with the information allegedly provided to him, Hines fraudulently obtained credit and services, including credit cards and telephone services.
No court dates have been scheduled in the case, which was assigned to Judge David Katz.
Hines is in custody at the Lucas County jail awaiting a March 17 trial on several unrelated charges of theft, forgery, and identity theft. That case is pending before Judge Denise Ann Dartt.
Sgt. Scott Steinke of the Ottawa Hills Police Department said that the investigation began in 2008 when three residents filed identity theft reports.
The investigation led him to an unoccupied Toledo home where credit card statements had been sent.
Hines became a suspect because he previously had lived in the home and was suspected in other fraud cases, Sergeant Steinke said.
"The common factor was an address in Toledo," he said, adding that police later tracked down Hines and conducted a search warrant at his residence.
"We were able to identify close to another 100 victims. … Later on, we were able to pull everything together."
Sergeant Steinke said that with the help of several agencies, victims were located in surrounding communities and counties.
Jean Haynes, director of operations for the Better Business Bureau Serving Northwestern Ohio and Southeastern Michigan, Inc., said it's difficult for people to protect themselves in these types of situations.
She suggested that people use free reports to routinely check their credit.
"You have to be proactive in regularly checking your credit reports where you can stop this activity early," she said, noting that consumers are entitled to one free credit report each year from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
"Regularly check these agencies and stagger these requests," Ms. Haynes said.
Ms. Haynes also suggested consumers start to question whether their Social Security number is always necessary.
And she advised patients to question their medical offices on what policies are in place to keep personal information safe.
Sergeant Steinke said the victims who initially contacted police learned of the fraud when they received mail about debt they didn't know they had.
"You have to trust people sometimes. You don't expect doctors' offices and other places of business to misuse your information," he said. "I don't think there's any easy answer. … Ask the question, 'Do you need this information?'•"
But the biggest deterrent, the sergeant said, is to prosecute those involved.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, if convicted, each defendant would face a sentence to be determined by the court.
Prior criminal records and amount of involvement would be taken into consideration.
Mr. Karol said that stiff penalties are faced nonetheless.
"People who work in those offices must know that [protecting personal information] has got to be taken seriously," he said. "It simply should never be disclosed except to the proper authorities."
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