Gresham woman faces 86 counts of identity theft
by: Contributed photo, Amber Carrillo

Local authorities are wondering how a Gresham woman - charged with 86 counts of identity theft - was able to use the U.S. Postal Service to get victims' mail delivered to her doorstep.

Amber Carrillo, 26, was arraigned Tuesday, March 11, and is facing 86 charges of identity theft, among other charges. She pleaded not guilty to all charges and a trial is scheduled to start April 23.

Police say she used a new method to steal identities, one used properly by 40 million people each year in the United States: post office change-of-address forms.

'Her mode of operation was different from what we are used to seeing,' said Sgt. Claudio Grandjean, Gresham police information officer. 'Typical mail ID thieves usually break into a vehicle or mailboxes and take mail. In this case, she was doing it a little upstream.'

Carrillo was able to get victims' sensitive mail - W-2 forms, credit card solicitations - sent directly to her and use that for more thievery. The part that was disconcerting, said Grandjean, was how easy it was.

'If I can go into a post office and get all your mail, there's a problem,' he said.

Post offices don't require identification to change an address - they can in fact be mailed in. And changing an address at the postal service's Web site requires a credit card, which police say Carrillo had plenty of - all stolen.

The postal service's only identity safeguard is a computer-generated letter sent both to the new and old addresses asking a person if the address change information is correct. The form says 'do nothing' if the information is correct.

'Those letters are generated based on a change-of-address order,' said Dennis Fernald, postal inspector supervisor, Portland office, who worked with Gresham police on the case. 'It lets the individual know that if you did not authorize this change of address, please contact the number enclosed in the letter.'

Fernald said the postal service processes about 110,000 address changes every day, and that people want it to be fast and convenient.

'It's a safeguard measure that the postal service has put in place to alert the person that hey, if this is OK, do nothing,' he said. 'So people have to be diligent as well.'

Kevin Demer, deputy district attorney who is prosecuting Carrillo, said a better system is needed; he said a system that allows people - particularly past victims of identity theft - to put a flag on mail accounts would help.

'It appears that, particularly for at least one of the victims in my case who was victimized by this scam several times, that the post office should have a method where an individual can check IDs and signatures in person before changing address,' Demer said. 'Because, as you know, when you do it online or in person, at some point that (change-of-address) card is being entered into a computer system for that address. Would that have prevented this? Yes it would have.'

Fernald said no system is foolproof; he said short of checking fingerprints, there is not much else to do, and that the current system works if people are diligent.

'You can have the best system in place, but there is always going to be a way around it,' Fernald said. 'Don't people counterfeit IDs? That's the case with anything. If you're not watching your identity … someone can take over your identity without your knowing. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the mail.'

Fernald said only 2 to 3 percent of identity theft is the result of stolen mail. He said the method of using change of address forms to steal identities is rare.

'Is it a huge problem - absolutely not; it is miniscule,' he said.

Perhaps not with the post office, but Gresham police alone deal with hundreds of identity theft cases - crime logs are littered with them.

'There's a massive problem with identity theft, in all of Multnomah County, not just Gresham,' said Grandjean. 'This is a system-wide problem. We can't investigate all of the ID theft cases, because there is such a huge amount, and the DA's office can't prosecute all of them because they are in the same boat.'

He said prison over-crowding means non-violent identity criminals are often let go.

'ID theft perpetrators are put in jail and released immediately,' said Grandjean. 'It's just a minor inconvenience because they'll get out and just do it again.'

Most identity theft criminals don't even face jail time in the first place - and that's the biggest problem, Demer said. He said sentencing guidelines now only 'presume' a prison sentence, and don't always require it.

'I feel like (the sentencing laws) should be strengthened,' said Demer. 'I think we need more both treatment facilities and more custody facilities.'

In fact, Oregon voters will have a chance Nov. 4 to strengthen penalties for identity theft. Former state Rep. Kevin Mannix spearheaded a campaign to get his proposal on the ballot. Petition 40 calls for mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of property and drug crimes. Among other things, it would set 36-month minimums for identity theft.

'This case is a good example of what is wrong with the current sentencing law,' said Kevin Mannix, who is a Republican running for U.S. House, District 5. 'The reality is that she may well get probation. The presumptive sentence for identity theft is probation. The current sentencing law is an offense to all law-abiding citizens.'

Petition 40 garnered 149,000 signatures - much more than the 82,000 needed - because people are angry about this issue, he said.

'Identity theft is a modern crime against a person, because it destroys a person's credit rating, which destroys their reputation and makes it hard for the person to cope in our modern society,' Mannix said. 'You have imposed a tremendous burden on the victim of identity theft, which on average takes three years to clear.'

Legislators in Salem drafted a compromise bill, Senate Bill 1087, that will increase minimum sentencing for felony property crimes from 19 to 24 months; it also provides $20 million a year to give first-time offenders drug treatment.

In the meantime, Demer is going to hope that, if convicted, Carrillo's 86 felony charges will get her prison time.

'Hypothetically, if she got convicted, don't you think 86 felonies means someone should go to prison?' he said. 'But that's not guaranteed here.'

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