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Wig-Wearing Imposter Part of Bernanke ID-Theft Ring

Associated Press
Wednesday, 2 Sep 2009 | 10:47 AM ET

A sophisticated identity theft ring that counted Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's wife among its victims didn't stop at stealing money electronically. Authorities said Tuesday it also sent a woman wearing a variety of wigs into bank branches to drain their accounts in person.

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Shonya Michelle Young, 38, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., was being held Tuesday at a federal detention center in Miami on a charge of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. "She was a major check casher," U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden said Tuesday.

At her first court appearance Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff ordered Young held until Thursday, when another hearing will be held to determine when she will be transferred to federal custody in Virginia. Prosecutors said Young had been a fugitive for more than two months.

Hundreds of victims were targeted in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Illinois and elsewhere. Among them: Anna Bernanke, whose purse was stolen outside a Capitol Hill coffee shop in August 2008. Someone started cashing checks using the Bernankes' bank account days later.

According to District of Columbia police, the purse contained Anna Bernanke's Social Security card, checkbook, credit cards and IDs. The amount of money stolen from the couple has not been disclosed.

When Young was arrested Monday at a corporate apartment complex near Miami International Airport, authorities said she had a fraudulent New York driver's license and a Visa debit card under the name Deborah L. Taverna, along with several wigs. "She had about three wigs that she would wear to mimic her victims or change her appearance," Golden said.

Young would impersonate the victims to obtain fake IDs and cash illegal checks, draining their bank accounts, authorities said.

In court Tuesday, Turnoff listed numerous aliases and three Social Security numbers Young allegedly used.

Similar scenes played out at bank branches across the country as other ring members used IDs, personal checks and bank information to impersonate victims, according to court documents.

Ten of the alleged ring's members have been charged, and other fugitives are being sought, authorities said. The suspects were identified in an investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Secret Service and D.C. police.

U.S. Marshals initially sought Young at her South Carolina home, but she had fled to Miami, authorities said. Young told the court that she is an unemployed widow who supports a 19-year-old. Her federal public defender did not return a phone message Tuesday. Authorities described her as a girlfriend of one of the alleged ringleaders but wouldn't identify which one.

The Federal Reserve declined to comment Tuesday because the investigation is ongoing. Last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke thanked law enforcement officials for working to solve the case and prevent others from becoming victims. "Identity theft is a serious crime that affects millions of Americans each year. Our family was but one of 500 separate instances traced to one crime ring," Bernanke said.

From January 2007 through May, the ring allegedly stole more than $2.1 million, and the frauds involved at least 10 financial institutions, according to court documents.

A suspected ringleader, Clyde Austin Gray Jr. of Waldorf, Md., pleaded guilty July 22 in Alexandria, Va., federal court. Prosecutors said Gray hired pick pockets then made counterfeit IDs for coconspirators who conducted the bank transactions. Gray allegedly took a cut of the proceeds.

Another man and another woman who prosecutors say were check cashers in the scheme also have pleaded guilty.

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