One of the most pernicious crimes of the modern age is identity theft, where someone gets ahold of your personal information and uses it to impersonate you for cash or just for fun. Here’s a serious rogue’s gallery of 10 of the most bizarre identity theft cases to ever hit the police blotter.
Identity theft, at its core, is a desire to be something you’re not. So the case of Dr. Gerald Barnes really isn’t that surprising. Born Gerald Barnbaum, he went to school to be a pharmacist but lost his license after committing Medicaid fraud in the early 1970s. But that wasn’t going to keep him down, so he found a doctor in Stockton named Gerald Barnes, stole his identity, and started practicing medicine under his name. In 1979, he was responsible for the death of an undiagnosed Type 1 diabetic and jailed, but even after his release he still kept working illegally as a doctor, even working as a staff physician for a clinic that did physical checkups on FBI agents. In 2000, he escaped from prison and managed to get another doctor job before being captured four weeks later. He’s currently doing hard time in a Federal prison in Pennsylvania.
While most identity thieves are in it for the money, some just enjoy screwing with people. That’s the only explanation for Mark Tufano, a British guy who got his kicks by impersonating famous actors. Tufano’s piece de la resistance came in 1998 when he did an impersonation of Gary Oldman so well that it fooled half of Hollywood. When Milos Forman was casing the role of Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon, Oldman was one of the names on the short list. Oldman turned down the part (it later went to Jim Carrey), but Tufano had other ideas. He created a note-perfect videotape of himself impersonating Gary Oldman impersonating Andy Kaufman and got it into Forman’s hands, who believed it completely. It took the real actor reading a trade paper notice about being up for the part for the whole scam to fall through, but you have to admire his initiative.
One thing that separates the top-level identity thieves from the run of the mill scammers is ambition. An ordinary Joe Criminal is happy to swipe a credit card from a dentist. Brazilian con man and identity thief Marcelo Nascimento da Rocha aimed much bigger. Da Rocha was the humble son of a pilot, and after a brief tenure as a drug smuggler for a huge cartel, he took on one of the ballsiest identity thefts of all time: impersonating Henrique Constantino, brother of the CEO of major Brazilian airline Gol Airlines. Da Rocha lived the high life for months before being found out, but he was eventually found out after sleeping with a woman who knew the real Constantino.
The thing about identity theft is, if you’re good enough at it, your victim can end up taking the fall... for a while. That’s what happened to Margot Somerville, a retired Wells Fargo bank president and grandmother. She lost her wallet on a San Francisco trolley in 2006 and thought it was nothing but a hassle, cancelling her cards and getting a new driver’s license. Then, two years later, police came to her door and took her away in handcuffs. A woman named Andrea Harris-Frazier had used Somerville’s identity to defraud multiple banks in Colorado out of tens of thousands of dollars. Amazingly, police considered Somerville the prime suspect – even though her own account was looted of $20,000 – extradited her to Colorado and tried to prosecute her before they found the real culprit.
When Brittany Ossenfort needed a new roommate for her Daytona Beach apartment, she luckily found a woman named Michelle who seemed to fit the bill perfectly. They were introduced by mutual friends and hit it off well. Things started to get weird after Michelle moved in, though – first she got a haircut to match Brittany’s, then a matching tattoo. But the final straw came when Ossenfort got a call at her office from the police department… asking her to come down and bail herself out of jail. Yes, Michelle had been posing as Brittany and working the streets as a prostitute, getting herself busted when she solicited an undercover cop for oral sex. But the weirdest aspect of the case? “Michelle” wasn’t her real name either – she was actually a man born Richard Lester Phillips, who had been living as a woman the whole time. As the only cross-gender case of identity theft on the list, we have to give him props for his balls. Or lack of them, as the case may be.
Most identity thieves are pretty cautious about who they impersonate, choosing victims far away who won’t recognize them. Lara Love and David Jackson, though, are the exceptions to the rule. The Aptos, California couple lived peacefully in their small neighborhood for a few years until they discovered that they could tap into their neighbor’s wireless Internet router. For some reason, that triggered an insane compulsion in the couple to steal like crazy. They started going through their neighbors’ mail to open credit cards in their name and even swiped from other parents at the private school their kids went to. All of this happened in the space of just a few months, making them some of the speediest identity thieves ever. Eventually cops tracked them down and busted them, ordering them to pay restitution to over 30 victims.
Identity thieves do what they do for lots of reasons, but for love? That’s a new one. Frederic Bourdin is a serial French identity thief who has made a life out of pretending to be other people’s vanished children. His most notable impersonation came in 1997, when he took the role of Nicholas Barclay, a teen from San Antonio, Texas who vanished three years before. Even though Bourdin looked almost nothing like Barclay, his persistence and confidence managed to fool the kid’s own family, who welcomed this stranger into their home without questioning why his hair and eyes were a different color. His impersonation lasted almost a year before police took his fingerprints and imprisoned him for six years. When he returned to France, he immediately proceeded to take another teenage boy’s identity.
You know you’re a baller in the identity theft hall of fame when they make a movie about you. Ferdinand Demara was one of the most talented impostors of all time, stealing identities left and right over the course of his life. After he joined the Army in 1941, he performed his first theft, going AWOL under a buddy’s name and starting a new life. He then joined the Navy, faked his own death, adopted the name of another man and became a psychiatrist before the FBI caught up with him and jailed him for desertion. He then met a doctor in Maine named Joseph Cyr, stole his identity and served as a medical officer aboard a ship during the Korean War, using medical textbooks to fake his way through operations. Demara was the subject of the 1961 film The Great Impostor.
The Internet has completely changed the identity theft game, as now private information can fly across the globe at an insane rate of speed. That’s how Abraham Abdallah, a busboy in Brooklyn, was able to gain access to bank accounts of famous folks like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. Abdallah would sit at the computers at the Brooklyn Public Library, painstakingly social engineering his victims until he had enough data to impersonate their financial advisors, then called their banks and got into their accounts. When the Secret Service busted him, he had just taken delivery of a $25,000 machine to manufacture credit cards and had a copy of the issue of Forbes magazine with the 400 richest people in America, marked up with copious notes including their Social Security numbers.
If we’re talking size, no one identity thief has done more damage than rotund Georgia help desk employee Phillip Cummings. While at his day job at a software company called Teledata Communications, Cummings would run credit card reports for customers and sell them to a Nigerian identity theft ring for thirty bucks a pop. When you consider that he did this somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 times, you can see how he got so fat. Over $100 million was siphoned out of various accounts due to his actions, and when the FBI got a lead on Cummings in 2002 it wasn’t long before he and his accomplices were put behind bars.