State-Sponsored Identity Theft

In an Ohio sting operation at a strip bar, a 22-year-old student intern with the United States Marshals Service was given a fake identity so she could work undercover at the club. But instead of giving her a fabricated identity, the police gave her the identity of another woman living in another Ohio city. And they didn't tell the other woman.

Oddly enough, this is legal. According to Ohio's identity theft law, the police are allowed to do it. More specifically, the crime cannot be prosecuted if:

The person or entity using the personal identifying information is a law enforcement agency, authorized fraud personnel, or a representative of or attorney for a law enforcement agency or authorized fraud personnel and is using the personal identifying information in a bona fide investigation, an information security evaluation, a pretext calling evaluation, or a similar matter.

I have to admit that I'm stunned. I naively assumed that the police would have a list of Social Security numbers that would never be given to real people, numbers that could be used for purposes such as this. Or at least that they would use identities of people from other parts of the country after asking for permission. (I'm sure people would volunteer to help out the police.) It never occurred to me that they would steal the identity of random citizens. What could they be thinking?

Posted on April 18, 2005 at 3:02 PM • 32 Comments

Comments

RyanApril 18, 2005 3:22 PM

What happens when an undercover cop then gets arrested for whatever reason? Local police aren't notified about these operations a lot of the time (for obvious reasons).

Try explaining that to the judge...

ScateApril 18, 2005 3:24 PM

And now, thanks to the data aggregation industry, the woman who's identity was impersonated by a police employee may discover that her "career as a stripper" appears in in future background checks and that she owes additional taxes for her earnings as a stripper, since the club may have 1099'd or W2'd the the stripper.

This is an absolutely appalling abuse of citizens rights. Can the police take out additional credit cards and identity under another persons name to help their impersonation? This has to stop and should be a federal crime.

xApril 18, 2005 3:27 PM

"What could they be thinking?"

They're thinking "We're the government. We're not only above the law, we are the law. We can do whatever we want. Just try and stop us."

Chris WalshApril 18, 2005 3:34 PM

Wow.

What emoticon do you use for a hand slapping a forehead?

This is amazingly poor law. Hard for me to believe it would withstand a challenge on the federal level, but the ignorance of those who passed it boggles the mind.

JohanApril 18, 2005 3:56 PM

Two questions:
(1) Is the target information limited to only Ohio citizens, or anyone in the nation (world?) they can get information about?

(2) What if the sting is about trade or sale of an illegal item, like drugs or child porn? I find it unlikely that every police/law enforcement department/agency in the entire nation would know of all undercover ops going in in the entire country, let alone all the details of each operation. So, the person who'se data is being "borrowed" get a knock on the door from the Customs division of DHS, and have no idea that this would even be a possible defense. What possible recourse could the individual take?

Davi OttenheimerApril 18, 2005 4:34 PM

Good one.

This all stems from "a change in Ohio's law the previous year aimed at curbing identity theft. The law allows police to use a person's identity within the context of an investigation."

Clearly the police are still using pre-industrial age tactics to chase and prosecute information-age criminals. In other words, the police have completely overlooked the tools available to create an administrative or investigative identity to prosecute identity theft.

Information security ethics dictate that you never assume anyone else's identity without their express approval, and even then you are intended to use a host of mitigating controls (passwords, auditing, etc.) to ensure no abuse. The police could clearly use some catch-up training on ethics and procedures for information assets.

But more importantly, I suggest that a very strict interpretation of the Ohio statute means that police are only authorized, with explicit consent of an identity theft victim, to assume that victim's identity solely for purposes of solving that specific identity theft case.

The practice of keeping and using a random identity, without approval is horrible enough. But to actually use an innocent's identity in a sting operation should be interpreted as the worst kind of identity theft -- fraud with intent to harm the victim.

Miami County Prosecutor Gary Nasal is quoted as saying "I don't apologize for the investigation and the conduct. The result speaks for itself."

But the result was a misdemeanor -- easy to obtain through legal means. Instead, Nasal condoned a group of male police officers paying a female college intern with public money to strip at a club.

"Each night [the police's intern danced], the state agents drank beer and watched from seats inside the club, ostensibly looking for violations of liquor laws at the same time. Troy police watched, too, through an Internet account they set up using the identity of a dead man."

At least the Troy police knew better than to steal the identity of a live person.

What a sad state (of affairs).

Jason RennieApril 18, 2005 5:18 PM

Although I agree it is a bad idea for the police to do this and that they should not be doing it. I do have one question.

Why are people attributing to malice what is much more likely attributed to stupidity ?

I can see why using a real bonafide identity is better than using a fabricated one (you might miss something in making it up that will get the officer in question killed) and they probably just didn't think it through carefully enough.

The law should be changed, but attributing these actions to malice is unwarranted.

Jason

JTApril 18, 2005 5:28 PM

It might not be malice, but it's more complex than simple stupidity. I think it might be called contempt -- contempt for thinking about the possible bad consequences of one's actions on another person.

Davi OttenheimerApril 18, 2005 6:03 PM

@Jason
In general terms yes, we should be careful to ensure that law enforcement officers have the means necessary to perform their duties. But there is a limit, especially when the officers claim a need to act above the law. For example, they should not drive recklessly unless required, and they most certainly not shoot unless required. There are grey areas, but this case has no grey. It is a black and white Keystone cop situation

It should be fairly clear that there was absolutely no need to take an innocent's identity without her consent and use it to impersonate a criminal.

The "ends justify the means" argument takes us so far backward in time, we might as well put Wild Bill Hickcok on the stand and have him quip "always shoot to kill, ask questions later". I guess a modern equivalent would be "invade first, come up with reasons later". Neither demonstrates a firm grasp of the concept of justice, although the former at least has a bit of old-West humor attached.

Roy OwensApril 18, 2005 6:15 PM

To test the idea, try turning it around. What would be wrong with making it legal for citizens to impersonate police officers?

Davi OttenheimerApril 18, 2005 6:16 PM

Just to be clear, Ohio Representative Jim Hughes of Columbus said his 2002 bill was supposed to help law enforcement fight identity theft.

With regard to the police stealing an innocent's identity and using it to impersonate a criminal, he said "It was not intended for that, I can tell you that."

So if you disagree with the author of the law, and you really feel strongly that the police can not do their work without taking innocent identities. then I suggest you donate your identity to your local law enforcement officers. Even better, donate it to the officers who have the most dangerous assignments, per your description of the risk of being uncovered. Then sit back and enjoy life as your identity slides into a life of hard crime.

The bill states its purpose as "to increase the penalty for identity fraud against an elderly person or disabled adult, and to create the Identity Fraud Passport." Hardly the green light for the police to hire a college intern to strip for money with an innocent's identity.

Bruce SchneierApril 18, 2005 7:05 PM

"Why are people attributing to malice what is much more likely attributed to stupidity?"

Who said anything about malice? It's almost certainly stupidity.

Bruce SchneierApril 18, 2005 7:08 PM

"I can see why using a real bonafide identity is better than using a fabricated one (you might miss something in making it up that will get the officer in question killed) and they probably just didn't think it through carefully enough."

I don't think that using a real identity of a person who doesn't know about the undercover officer is worse than using a fake identity. I can guarantee that if the bad guys look the undercover identity up in a marketing database -- and we know how secure those databases are -- and contact the real person, then with 100% certainty the officer's cover is blown.

Bob O'ShaughnessyApril 18, 2005 7:44 PM

And to think: Would this ever have come to light had the victim of the identity theft not been related to the Chief of Staff of Ohio Senator Mike DeWine?

Richard BraakmanApril 18, 2005 8:08 PM

There's some weird stuff in the article.

"Nasal and police eventually charged Szuhay with perjury and obstruction of justice."

That was their own agent, right? Not the usual result of a sting operation.

JimApril 18, 2005 10:26 PM

So I could of been involved with an investigation and not even know about it in Ohio. I was pulled over for no good reason and the police officers were real interested in getting as much information as possible from me, including my telephone number. I asked myself, why would they need my telephone number. The officer searched the inside of my vehicle and the stop must of lasted nearly a half an hour. I complied with everything and didn't get cited. The officer insisted that something just didn't seem right, that I was driving through this "bad" part of town, didn't I watch the news. The officer asked, did I have a cell phone. A few things didn't seem right from my perspective. There were some suspicious looking people in the area. From the line of questioning and the search of my vehicle and person, the whole thing was a large waste of time, including the 50 questions routine. I can still remember when you got pulled over, the officer approached the vehicle and you provided your license and registration. They went back to the patrol car, ran a check and you got a ticket or a warning. This new procedure appears to be based on gathering more information than is needed and wasting as much time as possible. The officer seemed to be playing detective during what should of been a 5 or 10 minute affair. He was just doing what he was trained to do, part of which appeared to be collecting data and find cell phones. He asked if I was ever arrested and I got the feeling this question was leading someplace, like to a bunch of other questions. I was honest with him, but I would think that somebody dishonest would just sit there and lie. So the point of asking all of these questions seems moot. I guess more people would be arrested if the paperwork wasn't such a hassle. Once it goes paperless, look out!

Davi OttenheimerApril 18, 2005 10:54 PM

@Bob
Yeah, good point. Perhaps from the intern's perspective she was told she would get a fake ID and $100 a night (plus tips) to strip and hang out at the bar, but she felt a bit pressured when they insisted that she "sit" with the police in the bar. When she started spending too much time enjoying the company of the other bar patrons and staff, the police grew tired of waiting for her "company" or jealous and charged her with obstruction of justice.

JimApril 18, 2005 11:12 PM

Davi
You can't depend on luck.
I could of been, for all that I know.
Intelligence and courtesy not always are combined. This is worse than illegal, it is a blunder.

another_bruceApril 19, 2005 2:47 AM

dangerous for the agent, too. it is said that we are connected to everyone else in the world by only a small number of degrees of separation. here is "Stella Joyrack" putting on her pasties in the dressing room, her colleague, Mona Sweetbush, makes a friendly introduction, later, Mona tells her brother Joe about the new girl, and Joe used to date the real Stella Joyrack, uh-oh, and the real Stella is one of a growing number of people who believe that identity thieves, like any other parasitic energy-sucking doppelganger, must be dealt with directly with the view of permanent elimination of the problem. the fake Stella goes to the ladies room one time, never comes back and the next morning, her corpse is found in the dumpster out back of the club.

DonApril 19, 2005 11:34 AM

We can only hope these clowns get the scruiny they deserve and there's some accountability. If this place was the den of corruption they claim then (1) why did they only manage a few misdemeanor charges and (2) what kind of vulnerability did they open not only this intern to but also the person whose identity they lifted? Because if Rocco Legbreaker decides to go after their snitch based on a name and social security number in the club records maybe he won't know this woman whose house he shows up at bears no resemblance to the one who was hanging around the club.

Then there's her IRS vulnerabilities when she gets a call about all this undeclared income, weird facts in her ChoicePoint file, etc etc.

She seems to have gotten off lighter in reputation than this poor dumb kid they convinced to be their undercover stripper. I can only imagine the level of respect she's going to get in her chosen field from all the people she encountered -um- professionally in this gig.

Karl LembkeApril 19, 2005 11:59 AM

Jason Rennie:
"The law should be changed, but attributing these actions to malice is unwarranted."

Granted. However, there is a limited amount of stupidity you or I could get away with before it becomes criminal negligance, and lands us in jail.

Jason RennieApril 19, 2005 5:47 PM

Can I clear up, some people think I supported the actions by the police in this instance. I do not. I think what they did was entirely wrong. I'm just trying to make the point that I can see why they might have thought it was a good idea.

They are wrong about it being a good idea, but I can understand why they thought it might have been.

Jason

BenApril 20, 2005 3:34 AM

The bleeding obvious?

Who thinks this investigation is on the level? Or who thinks these officers are corrupt, and were taking advantage of the young intern as well as the young woman whose identity they stole?

Would you like to help the police? It is really important work... and you have to take off all your clothes...

Please! Does anyone believe this?

Ben

NickApril 20, 2005 8:30 AM

This is simply insainly stupid. Forgetting all the nasty things that happen to the victim, in this case there is a larger picture.

Assume they stole your ID to take part in a drug bust. Mr. X gets real pissed about being arrested and deccides to go after the person who set him up. Dead inocent person who had absolutly no idea they where in danger. Who's blood hands does that persons blood land on?

In my eyes, the police.

Sgt. FridayAugust 18, 2006 10:37 AM

Aren't we leaving a few things out here?

The ID was for the daughter of one of the investigators. No one here really knows, but presumably, he provided it without endangering his own daughter, with her actual or constructive consent.

The target of the investigation was a bar which was closed by police. Sounds like liquor law violations, frequently a subject of undercover work.

Nothing requires the police to follow the Marquis de Queensbury rules, the Golden Rule or the Boy Scout Oath. Do these tactics undermine police credibility or public support? Failing to use lawful and effective tactics undermines law enforcement even more....

Ursula LisiakowskiDecember 26, 2006 11:26 PM

I have been a victim of identity theft, fraud and forgery. My mail was held without my knowledge for approximately fifteen years. During this time my husband was given my mail at the post office all the time without question. The post office says it's okay and that anyone can hold mail at the address. They do not want to say what they have done is caused my situation to become unbearable and I have had to live with a man who turned violent and more violent year after year just because he has the last name and we were married. I cannot believe that the post office does not want to admit their guilt in all of this. Why was it allowed to go on for so long? Why did they not make it a policy to ask "where's the wife?" why is she not coming to pick up the mail? - or at the very least notify me that this was happening. I WILL NEVER MARRY AGAIN BECAUSE ACCORDING TO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT IF YOU ARE MARRIED -- YOU ARE CONSIDERED ONE PERSON AND THAT IT OKAY IN THEIR EYES TO GIVE ME TO WHOMEVER - HUSBAND OR WIFE. I cannot chance this again -- NEVER AGAIN!!!!

Ursula LisiakowskiDecember 26, 2006 11:28 PM

I have been a victim of identity theft, fraud and forgery. My mail was held without my knowledge for approximately fifteen years. During this time my husband was given my mail at the post office all the time without question. The post office says it's okay and that anyone can hold mail at the address. They do not want to say what they have done is caused my situation to become unbearable and I have had to live with a man who turned violent and more violent year after year just because he has the last name and we were married. I cannot believe that the post office does not want to admit their guilt in all of this. Why was it allowed to go on for so long? Why did they not make it a policy to ask "where's the wife?" why is she not coming to pick up the mail? - or at the very least notify me that this was happening. I WILL NEVER MARRY AGAIN BECAUSE ACCORDING TO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT IF YOU ARE MARRIED -- YOU ARE CONSIDERED ONE PERSON AND THAT IT OKAY IN THEIR EYES TO GIVE MAIL TO WHOMEVER - HUSBAND OR WIFE. I cannot chance this again -- NEVER AGAIN!!!!

Just MeFebruary 9, 2008 11:07 PM

The woman in the previous post sounds a little bitter!! Who are you really mad at girlfriend?!?!

Laurie March 19, 2008 8:08 AM

In Maricopa County AZ the police willmake up any story to get a warrant and then search your home and plant so called evidence and arrest you just to make the county attorney look good.The public defenders will not defend you ,only have you sign a plee.They will not put up any defense if you go to trail and then you get alot of years of prison time. This was because the new county attorney had promised to reduce identity theft .and crime Yet they could not catch enough people so they started setting up people that they knew could not afford a street attorney. There are countless people in jail and prison that were innocent yet could not get a decent defense.Is this country going too far or what ? The police have gotten away with way too much and it will get worse before it gets better .Thank your Higher Power that you dont live in Maricopa County AZ .

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