A Nigerian national charged in a California identity-theft case involving at least 145,000 personal and financial records of consumers was found guilty Thursday and sentenced to 16 months in state prison.
In a plea agreement with prosecutors, Olatunji Oluwatosin, 41, changed his innocent plea to no contest and was immediately found guilty of one count of unlawful use of personal data. Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Paul M. Enright sentenced Oluwatosin to 16 months in state prison, but gave the defendant 180 days credit for the time he had been held in custody.
Oluwatosin was arrested on six counts of violating the state identity theft statue in late October in a sting operation stemming from the theft of personal and financial records from ChoicePoint Inc., one of the nation's largest information services.
Oluwatosin is believed to be a member of a ring that had operated more than a year before it was discovered, defrauding at least 750 people, Los Angeles County sheriff's detective Duane Decker told the Associated Press.
ChoicePoint, based in Alpharetta, Ga., says fraud artists posing as legitimate businesses received consumers' names, addresses, social security numbers and credit reports. The company on Tuesday said it had sent 35,000 notifications to California residents whose personal information may have been sold to the con artists. The next day, however, the company said it was sending out an additional 110,000 notifications nationwide.
Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Robert Costa told the Washington Post that the number of records involved in the ongoing investigation could be more than a half million nationally.
ChoicePoint, however, said the additional records weren't stolen from the company.
"That's their number, and ChoicePoint isn't clear where the number comes from," company spokesman Chuck Jones said. "(Investigators) could have additional information from other data providers."
ChoicePoint was not sure of the actual number of potential victims, because an individual may have multiple listings in ChoicePoint databases, Jones said. Therefore, a person could receive multiple notifications from the company.
The company expects to compile in a couple of days the name of the states where the potential victims lived, Jones said.
ChoicePoint discovered in October that it had been duped when company investigators discovered that applications for consumer records were coming through email or fax machines from Kinko's stores.
The fraud artists used stolen information to set up businesses that looked legitimate when checked by ChoicePoint, Jones said. The fraudulent companies opened 50 accounts and requested thousands of personal and financial records, which were sent either over the Internet or by mail.
"These were very sophisticated, well-organized criminals," Jones said. "They had engaged in identity theft before they ever came to ChoicePoint."
ChoicePoint provides personal and financial data on consumers mostly to businesses, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, insurance companies and financial institutions. The company has about 19 billion public records in its databases.
Experts say identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S., with more than 9.9 million victims in the U.S. last year, according to the AP. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service estimates the cost of the crimes at $5 billion.