This Real Identity Theft Stories blog series is dedicated to sharing real-world stories of identity fraud and theft — and just how devastating these crimes can be on organizations, individuals, and families. This post focuses on how a small ring of identity thieves was able to steal Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of children and use the data to steal more than $3 million in cash, goods, cars, and houses across the country in a lengthy child identity theft scheme.
He Stole From the Kids and Kept It for Himself
Turhan Armstrong lived in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood of Northridge, CA, but he was a far cry from Robin Hood. In 2017, he was convicted by a jury of overseeing a $3.3 million credit card, loan, and real estate fraud scheme using stolen identities, primarily of children. In early July 2020 Armstrong, 50, was sentenced to more than 21 years in federal prison for an alphabet soup of cybercrimes: conspiracy to commit financial institution fraud, financial institution fraud, making false statements to financial institutions, conspiracy to commit access device fraud (also known as credit card fraud), access device fraud, interstate transportation of stolen vehicles, and aggravated identity theft. Armstrong’s two co-conspirators, Mounir Deiri, 59, and Andres Velarde, 57, both of California, each pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges in the case and are serving 51-month and 60-month sentences in federal prison, respectively.
Armstrong used stolen identities and Social Security numbers (SSNs) to obtain credit cards, open bank accounts, apply for loans, and purchase homes and cars with illicit funds. “His criminal conduct was more than a series of bad decisions,” the prosecutors wrote about Armstrong in their sentencing memorandum, “it was a way of life.” This was according to a news release issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) Los Angeles, which conducted the investigation in cooperation with other federal, state, and local authorities.
In many cases, the stolen SSNs were those of children who had left the country, which was a clever ruse — neither children nor their parents are likely to check their credit reports, especially if they no longer live in the United States. The total loss to the victims, according to court documents, was $3,305,609.
Aiding the investigation was the fact that Armstrong did not report any income to the IRS between 2009 and 2017. When federal and local agents moved to arrest him at his apartment in Atlanta, he evaded capture but was ultimately detained at a second home in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Armstrong also owned a house in Northridge, CA, and rented two storage units in the Los Angeles area that were packed with false identity documents, hundreds of credit cards in various names, and lists of SSNs belonging to other people.
Breaking Down Child Identity Theft
Parents often have a false sense of security about their children’s identity. But more than 1 million children are victimized each year by identity theft crimes, putting them at a far greater risk of identity fraud than adults. How does the scheme work?
Identity theft rings such as Turhan Armstrong’s use stolen SSNs to create “synthetic identities,” the fastest-growing financial crime in the United States. Children are issued SSNs at birth but generally do not have any credit history until they enroll in college, apply for credit cards, or rent an apartment — making them prime targets. When lending officers pull up a credit report, they are not likely to find anything in that report. Any identity thief can take a legitimate (stolen) SSN, add a different name, birthdate, address, and phone number to start a fraudulent credit file. It probably only took Armstrong a month to open a bank account using the identities of each of his victims, apply for loans or credit cards that establish a credit score, and use the synthetic identity to apply for mortgages and car loans.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Family Members?
Patient criminals may sit on the identities they have stolen for some period of time before “going live.” In many cases, the more sophisticated fraudsters will make small charges against a new account to establish credit and establish a pattern of small purchases that go largely undetected. That’s probably why Armstrong’s crime ring was able to exploit so many victims for so long before they were caught.
Here are five steps that you can take to protect you and your family against the devastation of child identity theft:
- Understand where your child’s PII is stored, particularly at schools, dentists, and medical offices; verify that their records are secure.
- Know how any PII you provide on school forms will be used with whom it will be shared. Verify that these forms are updated and that it is indeed necessary to even provide PII about your child.
- Ask about the school’s directory information policy and what information about your child is included. You have the choice to opt-out.
- Consider a Credit Freeze for minors, available from all three major credit bureaus, making it more difficult for a fraudster to open new accounts with a child’s PII.
- Guard against scammers using social media to target children’s identities with Social Media Identity Monitoring
If you are concerned about safeguarding your family against child identity theft, IdentityForce offers ChildWatch as an additional service available to any adult IdentityForce membership. And, for organizations that offer IdentityForce identity protection as a benefit to their employees, ChildWatch is free.
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Whether juggling a new remote work lifestyle, dodging coronavirus scams, or simultaneously working to ensure the online safety of your children, IdentityForce is committed to protecting your family. Learn more about the best identity theft protection that monitors all of your accounts and alerts you, in real-time, to any suspicious activity. Sign up today for a free 30-day trial.