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Thursday, July 24, 2008

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

Two cleaning women are accused of stealing Social Security numbers and other personal information from workers at the University of Rhode Island's Alumni Center that they used to run up hundreds of dollars in charges on credit card accounts created in the URI employee's names.
The sisters had been placed at URI by TriState Enterprises, one of two janitorial companies at the center of a sweep last week at six state courthouses that resulted in the arrest of 31 suspected illegal immigrants.
TriState and Falcon Maintenance have more than 48 contracts with the Carcieri administration and the court system to clean state buildings, from courthouses to state colleges to the National Guard command readiness center.
Eliza Lima and Christiane Billafon have each been charged with nine counts of identity fraud, three counts of larceny under $250 and three counts of larceny over $250, which is the only felony, according to Fall River police, who charged the women after raiding their Jencks Street apartment house in March and seizing a computer, credit card applications and bills in the names of others, including several URI employees.
Their case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Aug. 12 in Fall River District Court.
They have not yet entered pleas to the charges. But in interviews with the police, they both pointed to someone named "Marcia," with no known job at URI, as the "the person who was getting the credit cards and making the purchases."
In his police report, Fall River Officer Thomas C. Chace said he "asked Eliza if 'Marcia' was working at URI …[and] she stated she wasn't. Marcia would come up to the college and visit her. Marcia asked her to take the information of people … from the trash barrel or recycle bin. I asked what type information she would get. Eliza stated anything that had a name or Social Security number."
Lima said, "The only thing she did wrong was get the information from the trash and recycle bin and [give] it to Marcia," Chace reported.
"I asked both females: where was Marcia Souza? Eliza stated that Marcia left for Brazil a few weeks ago and it is unknown if she is coming back."
In his videotaped interview with Billafon, Chace asked a further question: "I asked how she would get into the offices. She stated she had the codes to the offices."
When he asked Lima about a white piece of paper with a copy of a Social Security card that had her name and purported Social Security number on it, "she stated that the card was not real. Marcia printed this for her."
In the months since the March arrest of the two women, URI spokeswoman Linda Acciardo, one of the victims of the credit card scam, said the university has taken Social Security numbers off timecards which the state, South Kingstown and campus police who investigated believe were a source of the misused employee information.
The scam unfolded in dribs and drabs with first one and then another of the women employees at the alumni center getting a telephone call or a dunning notice from a credit card company for an unpaid bill for items they knew they never ordered, such as a GPS system.
The Alumni Center, on Upper College Road on the Kingston campus, houses the Division of University Advancement, which includes the Alumni Association, the Department of Communications and Marketing, the Office of Public Programming, the Publications Office, and at the time, the Development office, the fundraising unit for the university. Eliza Lima worked there only between Aug. 8 and Nov. 20, 2007, and her sister for about a month, between October and November 2007.
Here's the way the employee odyssey unfolded, according to the 12-page police report:
Former URI student Jessica Rusack of Hoboken, N.J., was the first known victim. A sometime worker at the alumni center, Rusack's parents called her in September 2007 to tell her Discover Card "needed her to call them." She called, advised them she had never applied for a Discover card and sought a copy of her credit report, which struck her as odd for a number of reasons. Her Social Security number was correct, but the report had an incorrect birth date. It had her working at a cleaners and living at 311 Jencks St., Fall River, neither of which was true.
She also learned that two credit cards had been opened in her name: a JC Penney card that was used at a CVS pharmacy and a Capital One card used at a Dunkin' Donuts in Fall River. She canceled the accounts and notified the Hoboken police.
In early January 2008, Cindy Sabato, of South Kingstown, learned that someone had opened a JC Penney credit card in her name. One of the items purchased online with the card was a $179.99 GPS system ordered on New Year's Day and shipped to a Marcia Souza at 311 Jencks St., Fall River. The second charge was for a $250 gift card.
Between October 2007 and February 2008, more victims surfaced. When they began trading their stories, they realized they each had traced their troubles back to a single address in Fall River - 311 Jencks St. They alerted the police to the pattern.
On March 7, the Police Department's Major Crimes Unit raided the Jencks Street apartment house where they found the names of multiple people who did not live there on the mailboxes. They seized computers, credit card bills addressed to Sabato and other employees at URI, "letters of standing" for multiple people and a Mastercard application in the name of a "Stephen Grim" they were unable to identify.
Billafon told Chace that the woman known as Marcia had "asked her sister Eliza if she could use the mailbox. Marcia told her sister that she was getting mail and needed her name on [a] mailbox."
The saga came to light after last week's arrests at state courthouses in Rhode Island as 31 employees of both TriState and Falcon Maintenance were ending their work shifts. Neither the owners nor the workers face criminal charges, but each of the arrested workers - 16 women and 15 men - face administrative charges of being in this country illegally. They originated from Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil and Mexico. Some had used fraudulent identification to obtain their jobs, said U.S. Attorney Robert Clark Corrente.
Anthony E. DeSimone Jr., the co-owner of TriState Enterprises at 1270 Mineral Spring Ave., in North Providence, is the brother of state Rep. John DeSimone. Rep. DeSimone's brother and law partner, Thomas, has represented TriState in its past legal battles.
In an interview yesterday, Anthony DeSimone said he cooperated with police when they came seeking information on Eliza Lima "and gave them everything I had on that person and they found her, so I did my due diligence. I could have sat here and said nothing. I went down there, I met with the URI police, I met with the Fall River police, twice, and I gave them everything I had and they thanked me for cooperating. They got to the bottom of it."
But Cindy Sabato remains stunned that identity theft is a misdemeanor.
"I can't say it strongly enough," Sabato, the coordinator of marketing and advertising at URI, said yesterday: "Identity theft is an incredibly serious crime. To anyone who hasn't experienced it, it seems like you just have to cancel a couple of credit cards," but "the long-term possibilities, the lifetime of worry now about where my Social Security number is and who's doing what with it warrants far more than a misdemeanor. It warrants far more than a slap on the wrist."
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