May. 12, 2003. 06:25 AM Toronto Star
I.D. theft a click away
Web loaded with personal facts
T.O. bank approves phony mortgage


TYLER HAMILTON
TECHNOLOGY REPORTER

Imagine Corrine Frenzel's surprise when she returned from a family vacation in Florida, opened her mail and discovered she'd been approved for a $202,000 mortgage from the Royal Bank of Canada.

It wasn't the acceptance that caught her off guard. It was the fact that the 20-year-old Scarborough student, occasionally employed and still living with her parents, has never been a customer of the bank.

More important, she's never applied for a mortgage and couldn't dream of being accepted for one.

"I'm only a student," said Frenzel, who attends George Brown. "I just started college."

But there it was, a 14-page document originating from a Royal Bank branch in Maple, detailing a mortgage for a new condominium unit in Chatham valued at $219,000. The four-year mortgage was processed and approved Dec. 23.

When Frenzel and her father contacted Royal Bank to report the mix-up, it became clear that an elaborate identity scam had taken place. At some point, Frenzel's privacy had been violated her personal information stolen to perpetrate a high-stakes fraud.

"I don't know what's going to happen now," said Frenzel, who is worried about how the crime might affect her credit rating so early in her life. "What happens if I go apply for a car loan? I feel like I'm in the dark."

For victims of identity theft, the real crime is the uncertainty and vulnerability it can create. It's a form of fraud that leaves the victim with many unanswered questions. Who is committing this crime? Will they strike again? And how could this come back to haunt me?It is estimated that the average victim of an identity crime will spend 175 hours and more than $1,000 over a two-year period to restore their credibility. And law enforcement authorities say the problem is going to become more widespread as more of our personal data is pumped through the databases, Web sites and high-speed networks that define our information economy.

"It's like having your wallet in a whole pile of places where you have no control over it," said Barry Elliott, a detective staff sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police.

"And once they've got your name and all your information, they've got it for life. Then what are you going to do? Change your name? They may wait four or five years and then try to use it again."

Elliott, calling the fight against identity theft an "ongoing battle," said perpetrators have become more sophisticated, going the extra steps to construct full profiles of victims that can be used to create fake identification.

In Frenzel's case, it was clear the woman named on the mortgage application wasn't the woman who was spotted on bank security cameras. Their ages seemed a decade apart. They didn't even share the same skin colour. Yet the fake Frenzel in the bank, joined by an accomplice who called himself Richard Clermont, presented enough fraudulent I.D. to persuade the Maple branch to approve the deal.

A duplicate photo driver's licence and social insurance card had been made. The suspect presented a bogus list of past jobs and employment references that "checked out," the bank manager told Frenzel. The impostor had even taken out a $10,000 GIC at an earlier date to help legitimize the mortgage application, which was handled by a travelling mortgage specialist who worked for Royal Bank.

The specialist and the branch manager refused comment for this story.

"It's under investigation," said bank spokesperson Judi Levita. "This particular one has been brought to the police."

The bank could be out as much as $197,000, the amount handed over to the conning couple after various up-front fees were deducted. Real estate experts say a lawyer or notary public who held the money in trust must have been in on the plan.

According to information obtained by the Star, the Dec. 23 scam was a bold second attempt. The perpetrators had tried a month earlier, on Nov. 26, using a different Royal Bank mortgage specialist associated with a branch in North York. That application was not approved.

"Certain checks and balances have failed in this situation," said case Detective Fred Kerr, with the major fraud division at York Region police.

He said mortgage fraud involving impersonation is a growing concern, along with other forms of identity scams involving the use of credit cards, opening of bank accounts, tax evasion and government welfare. Often, the victims don't know they've been had until several months later.

"We're getting more and more of these, and if you talk to the Toronto, Durham and other forces, you'll find the same problem."

According to statistics collected by PhoneBusters, the central agency in Canada that collects information on identity theft complaints, about 7,400 people reported identity crimes last year, totalling $8.53 million in stolen funds. Half of those complaints and nearly two-thirds of the dollar losses were in Ontario. As 2002 was the first full year for collecting this data, year-over-year comparisons cannot be made. But the dollar losses this year across the country $5.03 million as of March 21 could surpass 2002's total by summer.

In the United States, where the Federal Trade Commission has been collecting identity theft data since 2000, the number of complaints rose last year to 161,819 from 86,198 in 2001, representing an 88-per-cent jump for what is commonly referred to as the fastest growing form of fraud in North America.

Detective Elliott, founder of PhoneBusters (operated by the Ontario Provincial Police), doesn't paint an optimistic picture when talking about identity theft, a crime that has been tracked in Canada for less than a couple of years.

"It's going to be a nightmare," said Elliott, explaining that the crime knows no geographic boundaries and can affect any age group, ethnic community or tax bracket.

Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg are among the rich and famous who have found themselves duped. "No matter what you do, the criminals are way ahead of you."

Frenzel can only speculate where and how her personal information was taken.

She banks online. Uses the Internet regularly. Over the past year she has applied for many part-time positions at fast-food restaurants and about a dozen telemarketing jobs advertised in the newspaper. In most cases, a social insurance number was requested on the application.

Underground telemarketing operations are notorious for selling the personal data they collect into organized crime networks, according to one detective in the York Regional Police fraud division.

For individuals, keeping this information safe from abuse has become increasingly difficult, particularly when more and more details about our lives are required by governments and businesses in their efforts to market products better, deliver services more efficiently and fight crimes more effectively.

When that information finds its way into the wrong hands either inadvertently through a data leak, intentionally through theft or through a deceptive scheme there's no knowing who might become the next victim.

Six things you should know about avoiding identity theft