It's easy to change names; ID-theft suspects did it a lot
A new form of identity theft exploits the surprisingly easy process for legally changing names — over and over again — in Washington state.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What's in a name?Name changes prosecutors say Teeshawndra Nelson made as part of alleged fraud scheme:
Feb. 6, 2002: Kimberly Sueann Jones
Nov. 19, 2003: Monica Leeann Tillmen
June 7, 2004: Nicole Reana Wells
Aug. 4, 2004: Carolyn Reana Toeban
March 10, 2005: Sophia Lee Peay
April 14, 2005: Shelia Elane Locke
May 4, 2005: Ruth Ann Kirschner
June 20, 2005: Lisa Alee Morton
Source: U.S. Attorney's Office
In February 2002, Teeshawndra Nelson went before a King County judge and changed her name to Kimberly Sueann Jones. The change, she told the court, was for "religious" reasons.
Less than two years later, she changed her name to Monica Leeann Tillmen. A few months after that, she became Nicole Reana Wells.
By the time she was arrested early Monday, Nelson had legally changed her name at least eight times in about 3 ½ years, according to prosecutors.
Each time she changed her name, Nelson obtained a new Washington state ID card or driver's license.
Nelson then used the IDs and stolen Social Security numbers to open bank accounts under her new name and allegedly wrote scores of bad checks, according to charging papers. Once the bank caught on to the fraud, she would go back to court to change her name and begin the cycle anew, the papers say.
Nelson is one of 11 defendants facing federal charges as a result of "Operation Name Game," a lengthy investigation of a sophisticated new form of identity theft that exploits the surprisingly easy process for legally changing names — over and over again — in Washington state.
Most of the defendants made their initial appearances and entered not-guilty pleas Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
All 11 defendants are charged with bank fraud and Social Security fraud. Two defendants, Trina Caldwell and Lashaye Perkins, also are charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year mandatory prison term.
Prosecutors said the fraud scheme cost banks more than $83,000 and merchants more than $158,000. They declined to comment on how the defendants procured the stolen Social Security numbers.
Matthew Lavelle, a special agent with the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General, first discovered links between serial name-changers, Social Security fraud and identity theft in 2004 while investigating an identity-theft ring that involved a Department of Licensing employee issuing fraudulent driver's licenses and identification cards.
One of the targets of that investigation, Coretta Caldwell, had 17 Washington state ID cards in different names, according to court documents. Caldwell procured several of the IDs after obtaining legal name changes in King County District Court.
Caldwell then used the new IDs and stolen Social Security numbers to open 15 checking accounts at various Bank of America and U.S. Bank branches, according to a plea agreement she accepted in 2005. Caldwell admitted to writing nearly $67,000 in bad checks to more than 50 merchants.
She pleaded guilty to one count of Social Security fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft in January 2006 and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Four of the defendants charged Monday are relatives of Coretta Caldwell, said Vince Lombardi, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case.
Thousands of people in Washington state change their names every year.
In King County alone, 2,938 name-change orders were issued in 2006 and 2,900 were issued in 2005.
The reasons for most of the changes are predictable: getting married, getting divorced, wanting to take a relative's name.
The process is simple and involves virtually no oversight.
Name-change petitioners pay a $108 fee and fill out a one-page form to ensure the applicant is a U.S. citizen, a county resident and is not a registered sex offender. It asks for a brief reason for the change, and states that a name change cannot be "detrimental to the interests of any other person."
The petitioner then appears briefly before a district court judge, who asks whether the name change is being done for any illicit purpose, to defraud creditors or to harm another person.
On Monday afternoon in Seattle, King County District Court Judge Eileen Kato handled three name-change petitions in less than five minutes.
"The courts pretty much take your reasons at face value," Lombardi said.
One question that is never asked, either on the written form or in person, is whether an individual has changed his or her name before.
And because petitioners do not have to provide a unique identifier, such as a Social Security number or a driver's license number, there is no easy way to identify serial name-changers.
"You really have to dig deep in the system to see how the names are linked," Lavelle said.
Teeshawndra Nelson changed her name four times in less than four months in the spring of 2005, according to charging papers, but at the time no one noticed.
Other red flags also went unnoticed. When Ausha Pigott, another defendant charged Monday, changed her name three times in 2005, she listed as a reason each time a desire to take her father's name, according to court papers. The names she adopted in that time period were Janae Gillespie, Sheila Locke and Lisa Marie Wooten, according to the indictment.
"Certainly there are some loopholes that people have been able to exploit" in the name-change system, Lombardi said. "Now the question is, what do you do to fix it?"
Name changes are overseen by district courts in each county. Any change would require action at the state level.
The 11 defendants charged Monday are due to stand trial Oct. 15.
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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