Identity theft hits S.F. without warning

About a year ago, Michael Harville, a clinical psychologist from Bakersfield, checked his bank account to find that its entire balance had been drained.

The 35-year-old father first thought the money had been stolen, but he quickly learned that his bank, Bank of America, had seized the funds to cover overdraft charges on another, fraudulent account that had been opened in his name.

Harville had just learned he was a victim of identity theft, specifically by identity thief Harley Logsdon, who pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft charges in San Francisco on July 25 and was sentenced to four years in state prison Aug. 7.

“He deposited a whole bunch of fake checks in that account worth something like $8,000. Bank of America pulled all the money out of my account to cover the overdraft in the account that he had opened,” Harville said.

On Friday, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris announced that another man, Miguel Penn, had also pleaded guilty to similar identity theft charges. The two were not tried together but they may have worked together, prosecutor Conrad Del Rosario said Tuesday.

The scheme both men perpetrated involved three stages, Del Rosario said: obtaining a victim’s information in order to create a fake identification and bank account in their name; manufacturing fake checks to deposit in the bank account; and withdrawing the cash credited to the bank account before the checks were identified as phony.

“Sometimes you’ll have a clerk who catches the fraudulent check, or a clerk who identifies the phony driver’s license. But the gamble is that they’ll miss it,” Del Rosario said. “In the Logsdon case, we had checks that ranged anywhere from a $2,500 check to as much as a $7,777 check allegedly coming from the California Lottery.”

Penn will be ordered to pay $60,000 in restitution. Logsdon was ordered to pay $65,000. Both will receive four-year prison sentences.

But for Harville, the successful arrest and prosecution of his culprit did little to alleviate the bureaucratic nightmare the theft kicked off. In addition to more than a month of back-and-forth with Bank of America to reclaim the money seized from his account, Harville had to cold-call banks to see if any accounts had been opened in his name. He found three more.

“Many of the banks wouldn’t work with me because I couldn’t provide the information to access the account,” Harville said. “I was trying to talk them into saving their own rear end.”

Even his own bank, at which the suspect had opened an account in Harville’s name, couldn’t keep its information straight, Harville said. “I called up and reported the fraud. I think at some point they called him up to talk about the reported fraud,” he said.

Harville said he suspects there may still be fraudulent information out there with his name on it. “That was immensely stressful, an absolute nightmare,” he said.

How to prevent identity theft

The most important factor in preventing identity theft is safeguarding personal information. Reporting and documenting the crime can also help victims recover their property, Assistant District Attorney Conrad Del Rosario said Tuesday.

» Be careful about your mail. Don't leave it in locations that could be easily accessed by other people.

» If you ever have anything stolen, such as a wallet or a briefcase, immediately contact your credit bureau and put a fraud alert on your credit history.

» Shred all documents with personal information — even magazines that show your name and address.

» Avoid Internet “phishing” scams, particularly any type of e-mail purporting to be coming from a legitimate company, asking you to provide your personal information.

» More info can be found on the Web at www.consumer.gov/idtheft; www.privacyprotection.ca.gov; and www.privacyrights.org.

– Source: S.F. District Attorney’s Office

amartin@examiner.com


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