Police officers rewarded for identity theft investigation

There was a point during Sgt. Tony Frisbee and Sgt. Shaun Devlin’s identity theft investigation earlier this year where new victims were coming in almost daily.

Most of the cases had similar characteristics: Victims’ Social Security numbers were used to file false tax returns, the returns were sent to Texas and the victims all belonged to the same healthcare provider.

While the UCI detectives weren’t over their heads yet, the case threatened to become almost too much to handle.

“In the beginning, the size of the case, the amount of victims we had, it was like ‘Wow,’” Devlin said. “Tony and I felt like we had to get a jump on this.”

And jump they did, headfirst as one investigator put it, into the world of fraud investigation.

Through a five-month investigation that took UCI officers halfway across the country on multiple occasions, authorities managed to net half a dozen indictments and several arrests that revealed an identity-theft ring that victimized nearly 200 UCI graduate students earlier this year.

Devlin and Frisbee, the two lead detectives on the case, were recognized as the 2008 Investigators of the Year by the Orange County Financial Crimes Investigator Assn. last week. They credited their team, Det. Caroline Altamirano, Sgt. Manse Sinkey and IT Manager Isaac Straley for their efforts as well.

“We felt as a committee they certainly did deserve a lot of recognition,” said Meloni McMinimy, a board member on the association. “Bottom line, it was their tenacity.”

Damon Tucker, a 10-year veteran of law enforcement, nominated the men after working with them.

“It seemed like a pretty big and sophisticated case, and seemed to be a daunting task for an agency that size,” Tucker said. “They went beyond the call of duty on this one. We could have simply said we don’t have the resources or technical ability to do something like this.”

The men had to work out logistics with Texas law enforcement so they could operate on their turf, and in some cases ask for help, officers said. Getting to that point was a hassle too, officials said. An exhaustive search for a breach in UCI’s student databases turned up empty. From there, all signs pointed to the United Healthcare in Texas, UCI’s third-party healthcare provider.

“They were met with hurdle after hurdle with where the breach was,” Tucker said. “These cases are kind of like icebergs. The people who do these crimes, you see a tip of it, and underneath it there’s a whole bunch more.”

Thousands of UCI graduate students’ Social Security numbers were compromised, with nearly 200 being victimized in the end, police said. Most have received their tax returns with school, police and government help. Police arrested who they believe was the inside-man who stole the numbers, Michael Tyrone Thomas, earlier this year.

Thomas and his several co-defendants will appear in federal court early next year.

Devlin and Frisbee said they’re humbled by how much praise they’ve received, especially because some detectives out there handle these cases on a daily basis.

For them, they said they were just doing their job and trying to help students.

“We’re a small department. Here at UCI, we’re tight-knit, we tend to jump on things pretty quick,” Devlin said.