New Trier, investigators probe identity theft cases of 48 teachers

When former New Trier High School teacher Joyce Grant realized a cellphone account had been opened using her personal information, she assumed it was a one-time occurrence.

After contacting the carrier’s fraud department, the matter was eventually resolved.

Not long after, Grant received a notice from the Internal Revenue Service stating she was being audited after her income tax return contained several deductions — a return she did not file.

Through networking, Grant found out she was not alone. She was one nearly 50 former and current New Trier teachers who have experienced identity theft within the last three years.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Grant said. “That’s the problem. A lot of people have been re-victimized.”

New Trier officials confirmed they are working with the Winnetka and Northfield police departments as well as the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to investigate the issue.

“It came to our attention two or three months ago,” Superintendent Linda Yonke said. “They aren’t all exactly the same. There is not a pattern of years except that it’s mostly retirees.”

School administrators said the only common element is all the victims are members of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System and were hired at New Trier between 1968 and 1992.

New Trier has hired a third party to look for any security or data breaches within the school’s systems, but so far have found nothing.

“The investigative firm came in and gave us a clean bill of health,” said Technology Director Chris Johnson. “Many of these employees are not active in our current systems now. We don’t have their information in electronic form, but we still have paper records and other records that contain their information.”

Administrators said they are also looking at vendors who have processed the school’s benefits to see if any breaches occurred with them.

Due to the range of dates, Johnson said a possible breach could have happened several years ago.

“We’re doing all we can to collaborate with [law enforcement],” Johnson said. “Human Resources is keeping a master list of people who were impacted by this.”

During its June 10 meeting, the New Trier High School Board of Education heard from another victim, former teacher Zachary Lazar, who retired in 1994.

Lazar discovered he was a victim after attempting to file his tax return, but was told a return using his identity had already been filed. Lazar had also received a summons in his name to appear in a New York state court.

“I have friends who open the mail and they’re finding bills for phones or cars,” Lazar said.

Lazar said he has had trouble gaining information from the Winnetka and Northfield police as he is a Northbrook resident, and asked New Trier to “centralize” information so victims can make inquiries and receive updates during the investigation.

Since the initial discovery, Grant and former New Trier Principal Wes Baumann have acted as liaisons between the victims and New Trier, listening to each story in detail.

“I knew of only seven [victims] in January,” Grant said. “Now I know 48. In this last week, four people have contacted me. There is a loss of trust, security and peace of mind among victims.”

Grant said nine current New Trier teachers have had personal information stolen, and is hopeful those affected can see a conclusion shortly.

“Some of the people who have been victims are sick,” Grant said. “They weren’t even the ones who contacted me, it’s their spouses. To have someone who’s really sick or ill to have this problem is really quite awful. The people I talk to want some resolution to this and that person responsible brought to justice.”

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