If ever there were living proof that identity theft can strike the mighty and powerful as well as hapless consumers, look no further than the nation's chief banker: Ben Bernanke. The Federal Reserve Board chairman was one of hundreds of victims of an elaborate identity-fraud ring, headed by a convicted scam artist known as "Big Head," that stole more than $2.1 million from unsuspecting consumers and at least 10 financial institutions around the country, according to recently filed court records reviewed by NEWSWEEK.
Last summer, just as he was dealing with the first rumblings of the financial crisis on Wall Street, Bernanke learned that a thief had swiped his wife's purse—including the couple's joint check book. Days later, someone started cashing checks on the Bernanke family bank account, the documents show. "It's fair to say he was not pleased," said one close associate of Bernanke, who asked not to be identified discussing what the Fed chairman considers a private matter.
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The theft of the Bernanke check book—never publicly revealed until now—soon became part of a wide-ranging (and previously underway) identity-theft investigation by the Secret Service and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The probe culminated in recent months with a series of arrests, criminal complaints, and indictments brought by federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va. The targets: members of a nationwide ring that used an inventive combination of old-fashioned thievery and high-tech fraud to loot the bank accounts of unsuspecting victims.
"Identity theft is a serious crime that affects millions of Americans each year," Bernanke said in a statement provided to NEWSWEEK. "Our family was but one of 500 separate instances traced to one crime ring. I am grateful for the law enforcement officers who patiently and diligently work to solve and prevent these financial crimes."
Identity theft is commonly associated with the heists of consumers' credit-card information and other personal data by cybercriminals. But Bernanke appears to have been swept up in the case only by chance—and through the most ancient of street crimes.
On Aug. 7, 2008, the Fed chairman's wife, Anna Bernanke, was at a Starbucks, not far from the couple's Capitol Hill home, when her purse was snatched off the back of a chair, according to Washington, D.C., court records. Among its contents: her driver's license, Social Security card, four credit cards, and a book of Wachovia bank checks from the couple's joint checking account. Printed on each check were the Bernankes' bank-account number, home address, and telephone number. Anna Bernanke reported the missing purse that day to the D.C. police.
But as it turned out, the perpetrator was no ordinary thief: he was working for a sophisticated crime ring that federal agents and the police in several states had been investigating for months. In the Chicago area, where some members were based, the ring went by the street name of "Cannon to the Wiz." (The term "cannon" is slang for pickpocket.)
One of the group's ringleaders, Clyde Austin Gray Jr. of Waldorf, Md., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud in federal court in Alexandria, Va., just last month. Gray (who was known to members of his ring as Big Head) employed an army of pickpockets, mail thieves, and office workers to swipe checks, credit cards, military IDs, and other personal records, according to his plea agreement and other court records filed in his case.
One member of the ring had infiltrated an office of the Combined Federal Campaign, the official U.S. government-sponsored charity, and supplied the crime ring with stacks of checks mailed in by federal workers, the records show. Another worked in a Washington, D.C., doctor's office, with access to patients' records and their bank-account information.