It used to be when thieves wanted to steal someone's identity they would rummage through trash cans for bills and credit card statements to find individual account numbers.


Bibiana Benson had a far cleaner, and more lucrative method.


The Nigerian-born local resident got a fake driver's license, started a bogus real estate business and then opened a post office box in plush Beverly Hills.


That's all that was needed, prosecutors say, for her to obtain thousands of credit cards, bank account numbers and other valuable identity information from ChoicePoint Inc. She also sold the identities to other thieves for $40 to $65 a piece.


"She got 10,000 identities that way," said assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause, who headed the federal investigation of Benson and her brother, Adedayo Benson, in Los Angeles. "That's a lot of trash cans."


The Bensons' case was the first to hit ChoicePoint, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based data firm that disclosed in February it may have divulged the personal information of 145,000 people to identity thieves posing as small businesses. The announcement spurred talk in Washington of tougher privacy protections and investigations by state attorneys general into how the company breached the privacy of such individuals.


Last month, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office brought a 22-count indictment against Olatunji Oluwatosin, a North Hollywood man who was accused of obtaining the personal information of thousands of people. He also is alleged to have created false businesses, rented local post office boxes and obtained ChoicePoint accounts to get people's identities.


ChoicePoint is one of several data companies that has emerged in recent years to provide public information to businesses, insurance firms and government agencies.


The company helps do employment background checks, drug screenings, public filings, tenant screening, mortgage fraud credentialing and shareholder locator information searches.


Critics charge that ChoicePoint, in generously granting sensitive data, was avoiding federal regulations designed to protect consumers from having their personal information, such as Social Security numbers, made available.


"Part of the problem that we're discovering is that ChoicePoint let people into its system with just a business license," said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Any Tom, Dick or Harry can get a business license."


Dumpster diving
Identity theft affects about 10 million people each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, costing some $53 billion in losses.


Traditionally, thieves have gone "dumpster diving" to get identities. However, the Bensons, Oluwatosin and other cases targeting companies such as ChoicePoint have drastically raised the stakes. "I could be a waiter at a restaurant and steal a credit card number, but I only have a number. If I get a ChoicePoint report, I have a mother's maiden name and Social Security number, and I could apply for lots of cards. It's a much bigger problem," Hoofnagle said.

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