Monica Jones first knew something was wrong in mid-February when her mail contained statements for credit cards she didn’t recognize.
The Copley Township mother of two got statements from retailers outside Akron.
In a week’s time, Jones discovered her identity had been stolen with multiple accounts opened in her name. Over a month, thieves opened accounts with at least 15 companies or stores, spending more than $40,000. “I wanted to cry and I felt violated,” she said.
Jones is one of at least 63 victims the Beacon Journal has confirmed in recent identity theft involving at least five Northeast Ohio communities. Authorities say most of the victims have had charges up to $20,000.
In each of the communities, the victims are all neighbors. Beyond that, the victims have little in common.
In all communities but Montville Township, the residents live in houses built by Ryan Homes.
The Beacon Journal confirmed the number of cases in Copley Township (19), Streetsboro (10), Montville Township (18) and the Cleveland suburb of Berea (16). There could be additional victims in Avon, another Cleveland suburb, and authorities said they wouldn’t be surprised if there were more victims in other communities or nationwide. They add it appears to be part of a large, sophisticated crime ring.
In some instances, authorities did not know of other jurisdictions with similar problems until alerted by the Beacon Journal. Officials said they have forwarded their information to federal authorities, including the U.S. Secret Service, FBI and U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office because they believe crimes are occurring across state lines. Local detectives said they have received no confirmation that an investigation has been started. They hope that as the number of victims and jurisdictions builds, federal authorities will become involved. Calls to the Secret Service in Cleveland and Chicago were not returned.
Most victims discovered the identity theft when they received bills for credit cards they never opened.
Authorities said Ryan Homes officials have been cooperating and conducting their own investigation looking for any connection. A spokesman for Ryan Homes said the company does not comment on news reports. Ryan is a brand of Reston, Va.-based NVR Inc., which offers financing for Ryan Home purchases.
“There’s a connection, obviously, because [of] the concentration in specific developments, but we have not been able to trace this down to one employee or one specific transaction or title company,” said Copley police detective Joe Krunich, whose department has 16 victims in two Ryan Homes developments: Creekside and Hillside.
In some cases, the homeowners did not buy their home directly from Ryan. The 18 victims in Montville Township are neighbors in two subdivisions where there were multiple builders not including Ryan Homes, said Sgt. Chris LaFond of the Montville Township Police Department, where victims are in the Turnberry and Windsor Park neighborhoods.
In Jones’ case, while she lives in a Ryan home, she and her husband did not build it and purchased it from a previous owner.
The method for all victims seems to match: the victims are neighbors, their wallets were not stolen and their identities have been used to charge goods in other states. The thieves are making fake IDS with the victims’ names and the thieves’ photos. In some cases, thieves are using old phone numbers and re-using dormant accounts. In some cases, some victims have been audited by the IRS for a fake tax return they didn’t submit, said Berea Detective Dennis Bort.
A few arrests have been made of thieves in stores, but they haven’t garnered much information, said Krunich of Copley. One woman was arrested in Indiana and was from Michigan and was a transient from Chicago, so it seems that the thieves are traveling, he said. She was likely recruited off the street, he said.
“The thefts and accounts they’re opening aren’t anywhere where they actually live. Even if pictures are distributed of surveillance, it’s very difficult to identify them,” he said.
Krunich believes the thieves might have gotten access to victims’ credit reports.
“But who has access to those credit reports and why are specific neighborhoods being targeted? It doesn’t make sense the connection. If someone was accessing credit reports, they’d be in alphabetical order, but not in street address order,” he said.
Eva Casey Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that helps ID theft victims, said there are many different places where a persons’ information could be taken.
Velasquez said a common thread could be victims’ accounts being discovered through their home purchases, with a utility, or a common store or someone stealing mail and using resources on the Internet to get more information on the victims.
“It’s almost like the new street-level drug dealer,” she said of the fraud rings.
Separately, Wadsworth police Lt. Rob Wyrick on Friday said his community’s investigation into 25 cases of fraudulent credit card use, including charges in Europe, do not appear to be connected to the other communities’ ID theft cases.
Streetsboro police detective Brian Shaffer said he and others are hoping that if there are more victims, there will be more leads.
“At this point, it’s still a lot of ‘I’ve got 10, you’ve got 15.’ Everyone is aware, but maybe [people] don’t know the scope. Hopefully we’ll get some traction on this,” he said.
Jones said she thought she was a lone victim, until she started talking to neighbors, or seeing the same police car.
“You see the same cop car and you know what’s happening,” she said.