Identity thief finds easy money hard to resist

Shiva Brent Sharma's account of his exploits provides an insight into both the tools and the motivation of a thief.

By the time of Shiva Brent Sharma's third arrest for identity theft, at the age of 20, he had taken in well over $150,000 in cash and merchandise in his brief career.

After a certain point, investigators stopped counting.

The biggest money was coming in at the end, postal inspectors said, after Sharma had figured out how to buy access to stolen credit card accounts online, change the cardholder information and reliably wire money to himself--sometimes using false identities for which he had created pristine driver's licenses.

But Sharma, now 22, says he never really kept track of his earnings.

"I don't know how much I made altogether, but the most I ever made in a quick period was like $20,000 in a day and a half or something," he said, sitting in the empty meeting hall at the Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, N.Y., where he is serving a two- to four-year term. "Working like three hours today, three hours tomorrow--$20,000."

Once he knew what he was doing, it was all too easy.

"It's an addiction, no doubt about that," said Sharma, who inflected his words with the sort of street cadence adopted by smart kids trying to be cool. "I get scared that when I get out, I might have a problem and relapse because it would be so easy to take $300 and turn it into several thousand."

That ease accounts for the sizable ranks of identity-fraud victims, whose acquaintance with the crime often begins with unexplained credit card charges, a drained bank account or worse. The victims' tales have become alarmingly familiar, but usually lack a protagonist--the perpetrator. Sharma's account of his own exploits provides the missing piece: an insight into both the tools and the motivation of a persistent thief.

Textbook-variety scams
Identity theft can, of course, have its origins in a pilfered wallet or an emptied mailbox. But for computer-savvy thieves like Sharma, the Internet has forged new conduits for the crime, both as a means of stealing identity and account information and as the place to use it.

The Secret Service and the FBI have invested millions of dollars in monitoring Internet sites where thousands of people from around the world congregate to swap tips about identity theft and to buy and sell personal data. Sharma frequented such sites from their earliest days, and the techniques he learned there have become textbook-variety scams.

"Shiva Sharma was probably one of the first, and he was certainly one of the first to get caught," said Diane Peress, a former Queens County prosecutor who handled all three of Sharma's cases and who is now the chief of economic crimes with the Nassau County district attorney's office. "But the kinds of methods that he used are being used all the time."

As far back as 2002, Sharma began picking the locks on consumer credit lines using a computer, the Internet and a deep understanding of online commerce, Internet security and simple human nature, obtained through years of trading insights with like-minded thieves in online forums. And he deployed the now-common rods and reels of data theft--e-mail solicitations and phony Web sites--that fleece the unwitting.

Much of this unfolded from the basement of a middle-class family home in Richmond Hill, Queens, at the hands of a high school student with a knack for problem solving and an inability, even after multiple arrests, to resist the challenge of making a scheme pay off.

That is what worries Sharma's wife, Damaris, 21, who has no time for the Internet as she raises the couple's 1-year-old daughter, Bellamarie.

"I hate computers," she said. "I think they're the devil."

A thief's tool kit
Sharma is soft-spoken, but he does not shrink from the spotlight. He gained fleeting attention after his first arrest, as the first person charged under a New York State identity-theft statute--and later, at his high school graduation at the Rikers Island jail, where he was the class valedictorian.

For a prison interview, he has applied gel to his mane of black hair. He is Hollywood handsome, with deceptively sleepy eyes and smiles that come as tics in reaction to nearly every stimulus--a question, a noise. Prosecutors interpreted those smiles as evidence of smug indifference.

A tattoo of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and his namesake, is just visible on Sharma's right arm, under the short sleeve of his green prison jumpsuit.

Recalling his youth, Sharma said he was not unlike many other young people growing up with the mating calls of modems and unprecedented access to people, sounds, software and other thrills streaming into the family's home over the Internet.

As the youngest of three children in a family of immigrants from Trinidad--his parents brought the family to Queens when he was 6--Sharma said sibling battles for access to the computer were common. He studied programming at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York's most selective public high schools, where he met his wife.

He enjoyed chatting on AOL and was drawn, along with millions of his peers in the early days of file sharing, to downloading MP3s.

As he got older, he began hanging out on Internet-based chat channels that dealt with bigger game, like bootleg software. And amid the chatter were whispers of other something-for-nothing sites--ones where thieves had set up bazaars involving credit cards, banks and account numbers.

"So I ended up registering and then I started just looking, really," Sharma said. "Not really taking anything in, just looking and seeing what's going on there."

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