Alleged identity theft ring operator busted

A Hawthorne man suspected of operating an identity theft ring was charged with three counts of identity theft and one count each of possession of methamphetamine, possession of a short-barreled rifle and possession of a firearm by a felon last week, according to a Los Angeles County District Attorney felony complaint.

Shawn Berry, 44, was arrested after Manhattan Beach detectives conducted a third raid of his Hawthorne residence on May 7 and found notebooks full of victim’s names, social security numbers and dates of birth, pre-paid debit cards, U.S. Treasury checks and stolen mail. The previous raids occurred on December 21 and February 13.

Through the investigation, Manhattan Beach Detective Jeanette Meers confirmed 30 victims of identity theft. But based on the evidence, she believes there are hundreds more. Most victims are from Los Angeles or the South Bay.

Police suspect that individuals would bring stolen information – like social security cards, mail and drivers licenses – to Berry’s residence, after which the suspect would fraudulently file victims’ taxes online and open prepaid debit cards in that victim’s name. Police believe the suspects would then have the tax refunds wired to that prepaid debit card account.

It’s unclear what kind of exchange is occurring over the identity theft, Meers said. Dates on recovered mail and residential burglaries suggest this crime has been going on for a couple of years. The investigation is ongoing.

One victim has a child who is a minor – Meers discovered that taxes were filed in that child’s name. “It looks like there’s going to be a lot of victims with minor children with taxes filed in their names,” Meers said. “The scary part about that is no one’s going to find out until the child is old enough to work and has to file taxes.”

Meers also found forms requesting duplicate tax return checks from the IRS, suggesting that the suspect sought to obtain refund checks of people who’d already filed their taxes themselves. “If the IRS puts a stop to a payment on a check because it hasn’t been cashed yet, then the suspects can get the duplicate refund,” Meers said.

To avoid being a victim, remove identifying information from your car and keep your car doors locked, Meers said. “Carrying your Social Security Card just guarantees every type of identity theft there is,” Meers said.

The IRS has recently warned of phishing scams, where suspects pose as legitimate sites or the IRS and lure victims into divulging their personal and financial information. “The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email or any social media tools to request personal or financial information,” according to its website.

“Don’t just give out information to someone when they call you on the phone,” Meers said. “Some people will just give me straight out information when they answer the phone.”

When Meers calls victims, she requests that they look her up to verify that she is who she says she is. “They need to do that with anybody from law enforcement, anybody that calls them.”

Berry is being held in Los Angeles County jail on $400,000 bail. He’s scheduled to appear in court on June 1.

If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, call Detective Meers at 310-802-5134. Those who believe their identity has been compromised should also call the IRS at 800-908-4490. Victims should also fill out an identity theft affidavit, available on the IRS website.

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