A forensic investigation by IT workers at the online database service 192.com played a crucial role in helping police track down an organised criminal gang which used stolen identities to con high street banks out of millions of pounds.
The online telephone directory and electoral roll service, 192.com, traced the critical IP address that led detectives at the National Hi-Tech Crime unit to the gang's London headquarters, it emerged last week.
Six men were set to be sentenced last Friday after admitting sample charges of conspiracy to defraud Lloyds TSB, Halifax and the Co-op Bank out of £350,000.
The gang is believed to have escaped with millions of pounds from other high street banks which chose to write off their losses rather than report the offences to the police.
"Identity theft is a growing problem, particularly over the internet, and this case underlines the need for people to protect that most precious commodity," said detective chief superintendent Len Hynds, head of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.
The fraudsters operated from front companies registered under false names and addresses. They used 192.com and online credit reference agencies to steal the identities of recently deceased, credit-worthy people. They used forged passports and driving licences to open bank accounts, obtain cheque books and credit cards and take out loans in the names of their dead victims.
192.com helped police trace the IP address used by the criminals to conduct their online research when the gang began reoffending after being released on bail at the beginning of the year.
"We make it clear on every page that all searches are recorded and that these records are available to the police. It is a great mistake for a person to use 192.com to commit fraud when an audit trail is maintained on all searches," 192.com said.
The IP address led police to an office in Whetstone, London, where officers seized five computers containing e-mails and temporary internet files documenting the crime.
The credit reference agency Experian said it had introduced new procedures to check the authenticity of the directors and shareholders of companies applying for credit checks following the arrests.
Detectives at the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit said banks were talking to each other more effectively about fraud since the case.
Apacs, the banks' trade association, said it had created a working group on e-banking fraud to liaise with police and devise crime prevention strategies.
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How identity thieves netted millions
- Thieves registered a company at Companies House, with fictitious directors and shareholders
- Obtained a consumer credit licence for the front company
- Registered with Experian and/or other credit reference services for online credit checks
- Identified recently deceased victims by subscribing to online property auction sites - 80% of property is put on the auction market when the owner has died
- Used 192.com to look up the name of the deceased person and other occupants of the house
- Checked that the deceased had a good credit rating with Experian - if so, forged passports and driving licences were bought in his or her name
- Asked the local post office to redirect mail to their own address
- Opened bank accounts in the dead person's name, applying for credit cards and loans
- Used internet banks to move the money to other accounts.