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Phantoms of deceit

January 15, 2003

Tim Willert

Armenuhi Kartalyan-Oganesian never knew what hit her, but it might

as well have been a punch to the stomach.

Last month, the 37-year-old Glendale resident tried to make a bank

deposit but discovered her ATM card had been canceled over the phone

and a duplicate card issued and mailed to an address in Los Angeles.

"Whoever did this gave the bank my Social Security number, my

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mother's maiden name and her date of birth," Kartalyan-Oganesian

said. "I have very good credit, which worries me, because they can

request high lines of credit."

Another woman, Cathy (not her real name) was betrayed in August by

her nanny, who after stealing her employer's personal information and

obtaining a bogus driver's license, brazenly ran up $10,000 in

credit-card debt at several department stores -- including two in

Burbank.

"She quit on a Sunday and started shopping on a Tuesday," Cathy

said. "It was just so frustrating to think she came into my house and

set me up."

Similar horror stories are played out at an alarming rate in

Burbank, Glendale and the foothills, where identity thieves have

replaced the everyday burglar in the eyes of law enforcement.

The often nameless and faceless culprits steal personal

information and use it to open bank and cellular-phone accounts,

obtain driver's licenses, manufacture new checks, and even buy or

furnish homes.

They rarely pay for their crimes. Their victims, though, are left

to clean up the wreckage, often spending months and years trying to

repair damaged credit.

"At the rate we're going right now, it's probably not going to be

too long before everybody who lives in the state of California is

going to know a victim of identity theft," Glendale Police Det. Bob

Zahreddine said. "It's that bad."

Identity theft -- the unauthorized use of personal information to

obtain credit, goods, services or medical information -- has

increased by 130% in Glendale since last year, from 177 cases in 2001

to 381 through Dec. 17.

"It's surpassed anything else that we handle," said Zahreddine,

one of four detectives who investigate financial crimes. "The chances

of getting caught are pretty slim, and even if you get caught, the

penalties are pretty lax."

In Burbank, violent crime is down, but identity theft is up by

more than 60%. Through November, 261 cases of identity theft had been

reported, compared to 160 last year.

"We are absolutely overwhelmed," said Burbank Police Det. Matthew

Ferguson, who estimates the average identity crook gets more than

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