Experian Sold Consumer Data to ID Theft Service

In November 2011, this publication ran a story about an underground service called Superget.info, a fraudster-friendly site that marketed the ability to look up full Social Security numbers, birthdays, drivers license records and financial information on millions of Americans. Registration was free, and accounts were funded via WebMoney and other virtual currencies that are popular in the cybercriminal underground.

Each SSN search on Superget.info returned consumer records that were marked with a set of varying and mysterious two- and three-letter sourceid: identifiers, including TH, MV, and NCO, among others. I asked readers who may have a clue about the meaning or source of those abbreviations to contact me. In the weeks following that post, I heard from many readers who had guesses and ideas, but none who seemed to have conclusive information.

That changed in the past week. An individual who read a story about the operators of a similar ID theft service online having broken into the networks of LexisNexis and other major data brokers wrote to say that hed gone back and reviewed my previous stories on this topic, and that hed identified the source of the data being resold by Superget.info. The reader said the abbreviations matched data sets produced by Columbus, Ohio-based USInfoSearch.com.

Contacted about the readers claim, US Info Search CEO Marc Martin said the data sold by the ID theft service was not obtained directly through his company, but rather via Court Ventures, a third-party company with which US Info Search had previously struck an information sharing agreement. Martin said that several years ago US Info Search and CourtVentures each agreed to grant the other company complete access to its stores of information on US consumers.

Founded in 2001, Court Ventures described itself as a firm that aggregates, repackages and distributes public record data, obtained from over 1,400 state and county sources. Cached, historic copies of courtventures.com are available through archive.org.

THE ROLE OF EXPERIAN

In March 2012, Court Ventures was purchased by Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Experian, one of the three major consumer credit bureaus. According to Martin, the proprietors of Superget.info had gained access to Experians databases by posing as a US-based private investigator. In reality, Martin said, the individuals apparently responsible for running Superget.info were based in Vietnam.

Martin said he first learned of the ID theft service after hearing from a US Secret Service agent who called and said the law enforcement agency was investigating Experian and had obtained a grand jury subpoena against the company.

Authorities bust ID theft ring preying on LIRR customers

A band of identity thieves armed with hidden cameras and bank card readers that preyed on LIRR and Metro-North riders has been arrested, and authorities believe thousands of customers may have been at risk.

Four Romanian nationals, including a husband and wife, have been charged with identity theft and other crimes, authorities said yesterday.

Evidence seized at an Elmhurst, Queens,…

Private loans linked to high student debt

When it comes to financing her education, University of Minnesota art and psychology freshman Aubrey Peng doesnt have a choice.

This academic year alone, Peng will borrow $25,000 in private student loans. She said she has no plan in place to pay off her debt after graduation.

Private student loans, or PSLs, account for 15 percent of the countrys $165 billion outstanding student loan debt despite being only about 7 percent of all student loans taken out last year, according to a US Public Interest Research Group report released Oct. 24.

The report analyzed 4,300 complaints about PSLs filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since March 2012 and found that Pengs lender, Sallie Mae, was the most complained-about private student loan firm in every state but Minnesota and Alaska. In Minnesota, it ranked second.

The CFPB estimated Sallie Mae owns half of the private student loan market.

Last year, 10 percent of undergraduates at the Universitys Twin Cities campus collectively took out about $8 million in private student loans, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

Peng, an international student from China, isnt eligible for federal loans and said Sallie Mae is one of only a few US companies that lend students money without a US citizen as a co-signer.

It kind of worries me, she said about the firms high volume of grievances. But since its my only option, even if it was a fire pit, Id have to jump into it.

The most complained-about private lender in Minnesota is Wells Fargo, which ranked third overall nationwide. The San Francisco-based bank had 21 complaints in Minnesota.

Minnesota has the fourth-highest average debt for a four-year degree at $29,058, according to the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.

High-debt student loan borrowers, or those with $40,000 or more in debt after graduation, disproportionally use private loans to pay for school, the report said.

Matt Forstie, Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition chair, said private loans are a concern because theyre more expensive than other types of loans.

The students that take them out are the ones with the most financial burden or are the most vulnerable, he said. You take out a private loan if youve exhausted your other options.

The majority of private loan complaints filed to the CFPB were about repayment issues, which ranged from deferment to billing and fees.

Students can report problems with lenders to the agency, and it will file a report with the lender. Of the 4,300 complaints analyzed since March 2012, the CFPB helped 330 consumers receive monetary relief.

This shows that there was some wrongdoing [by the lender], Forstie said.

He said the USPIRG report and its findings show the CFPB is a good resource for students.

[The CFPB] has proven to be an awesome tool for students in its few years of existence, he said.

The report found that borrowers in the Midwest and South are less likely to submit complaints than those in other parts of the country, but Forstie said students should take advantage of the CFPB.

Its been successful in getting results where other agencies have failed, he said.

Peng went to high school in the US and is in the middle of filing for permanent residency. If she qualifies, she can qualify for federal student loans. But until then, she will have to continue with private borrowing.

Theres nothing else I can do, she said. I have to go to school, you know?

Elizabeth Twp. man victim of ID theft by county jail cellmate

An Elizabeth Township man was victimized by his cellmate in Allegheny County Jail, a county investigator said on Friday.

Timothy Barth, 33, of Swissvale was charged with one felony count of identity theft and eight felony and 34 misdemeanor counts of access device fraud.

A detective in District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.s office said a 69-year-old mans identity was stolen by Barth while the two men shared a jail cell earlier this year.

Ironically, Barth was there finishing out the jail portion of a sentence in a forgery case in Edgewood.

He was back in jail at the time of his arrest on Friday because of an alleged violation of probation. No date has been set for a preliminary hearing on the new charges.

Detective Alan Ballo said Barth used his erstwhile cellmates identity to acquire three credit cards.

In turn, those credit cards were used to purchase more than $4,000 worth of limousine rides, as well as meals, entertainment and a $395.89 air conditioner bought online.

They also were used to make transactions totaling $1,650 on a jail ATM machine on behalf of an Erie County inmate, according to the affidavit Ballo filed with Common Pleas President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel.

In all, the affidavit said, $10,453.56 was spent using the fraudulent credit cards, all between July 2 and July 14.

The Elizabeth Township man was incarcerated from Dec. 19, 2012, until Feb. 2 in lieu of bond on harassment and terroristic threat charges.

He was released after waiving his trial on those charges before Magisterial District Judge Beth Mills, who changed his bond from $50,000 to nonmonetary status, freeing him.

The Elizabeth Township man was listed as a “veterans court participant” while sharing a cell with Barth, who was listed in the countys affidavit as a “mental health court participant,” for three weeks.

Barth has a long record in the prison system stemming from fraud-related activities.

In 2005 he pleaded guilty to seven counts of writing bad checks in Allegheny County and one bad check count in McKean County.

He later faced numerous charges of identity theft in McKean County and in 2011 pleaded guilty there to retail theft charges in a 1998 case.

On Jan. 3 he pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and one of access device fraud in a case involving stores in Edgewood Towne Centre.

He was sentenced by Judge Beth A. Lazzara to 149 days in prison but only was jailed for 12 days after that sentence because of time served previously. He also was given two years of probation.

On May 10 Lazzara issued a bench warrant for Barth for violation of that probation, but authorities could not serve it to Barth until Sept. 11.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

Inside the Ring: China fears US financial default

US officials say recent statements by Chinese authorities indicate fear in Beijing that a US government default would endanger Chinas $1.3 trillion worth of investments in the United States.

State-controlled Chinese press accounts, a barometer for official government policies, presented limited coverage of the partial US government shutdown and pending default in the debt ceiling debate.

Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyo said at a news conference Monday that the US as the worlds largest economy and a major supplier of reserve currency needs to make sure creditors are protected.

Safeguarding the debt is of vital importance to the economy of the US and the world, he told reporters in Beijing.

This is the United States responsibility, Mr. Zhu said, adding that resolving the issue is critical as the Oct. 17 deadline for raising the debt ceiling nears.

President Obama was asked this week about the worries of creditors like China and Japan, which has $1.1 trillion in US debt holdings.

I wont disclose any specific conversations, but obviously my message to the world is the United States always has paid its bills, and it will do so again, Mr. Obama said.

But I think theyre not just looking at what I say. Theyre looking at what Congress does, and that ultimately is up to House Speaker JohnA. Boehner.

Mr. Obama dismissed foreign concerns, noting that democracies frequently have tussles over the budget.

Chinese press commentary on the financial crisis has included an Oct. 2 report that called the impasse a major worry and criticized the United States for years of irresponsible spending.

Another Chinese article said a US default would pose a systemic risk to the financial system and produce volatility in world financial markets.

Most of Chinas ruling elite, including government officials and state industrialists, has invested billions in US markets, which they view as a secure financial oasis.

Chinese government concerns contrast with recent unofficial news outlets in China that view the US government shutdown as an element of a desired democratic system.

The daily newspaper Nanfang Dushi Bao last week noted the powerful society of the United States for guaranteeing normality even without the government.

It said the shutdown is an extreme example of an inefficient two-party political system but said that was better than communist Chinas nontransparent government.

Listening tour on student loans stopping nearby

A legislative listening tour focusing on student loans will be making a stop Friday in Worcester, the closest the tour will get to MetroWest.

The Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, a newly appointed panel that so far has held five other hearings around the state since the start of September, will open the meeting at 10 am at the College of the Holy Cross.

After a final hearing on Nov. 18 in the Berkshires, the committee will begin drafting a final report and developing legislation to file next spring.

The goal of the campaign, according to panel House chairman Rep. Paul Mark, is to find out what we, as a state, can do to alleviate this burden. While the crushing costs of higher education have been a major national issue the past few years, the state to this point has not had much of a role in the debate over student loans.

This is such a huge issue for everyone at this point, said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, who developed the idea for the listening tour this past spring. I think its been a great exercise so far – people are glad were paying attention.

Prior hearings in Boston, Holyoke, Lowell and other parts of the state have typically drawn around 40 participants, according to Mark, many of them students who shared their struggles with college costs and their concerns for their future. Some college administrators have also testified at the meetings.

The panels eventual legislation could include possible solutions like loan forgiveness, increased support for savings plans, and fostering partnerships between colleges and businesses.

I think an easy fix is increased support for higher education in the budget, Mark said. Its already getting results.

After lawmakers increased the states contribution to 50 percent of public universities budgets this summer, many institutions agreed to freeze their tuition and fees for the first time in years, Sannicandro said.

Some of them will even begin reducing them, he added, if the state increases its funding more next budget. Were seeing a lot of movement because of the increase support from the Legislature – we really need to continue to do that.

Scott OConnell can be reached at 508-626-4449 or soconnell@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottOConnellMW.

Shift in financial planning reflects optimism

The most popular topic at San Franciscos free financial planning event Saturday was not how to manage debt during unemployment or how to save a house from foreclosure.

It was estate planning.

Its hard to say for sure whether thats a sign of the times – a glimpse of a new optimism about the economy or at least less fear and worry about day-to-day financial survival – but the event organizers and volunteers said they sensed a shift in conversation from previous years.

Last year, people seemed to be about, How can I make sure I dont fall into the financial abyss? This year, Im seeing a lot more forward thinking and a lot less fear, said Lynn Ballou, a certified financial planner from Lafayette, who volunteered all day Saturday.

About 500 people were expected to attend the citys annual Financial Planning Day, held at UC Hastings College of the Law and organized by the San Francisco assessor-recorder and treasurer offices.

By noon, the campus Snodgrass Hall was packed with nearly 100 financial planners and clients, who came with a wide range of questions and concerns. Estate planning was popular, but people also came with questions about retirement and investing.

For many attendees, Saturday was the first time theyd ever approached a financial planner – and thats exactly the point of the event, said Marco Chavarin, financial education and access manager in the San Francisco treasurers office.

When most people think about financial planning, they dont think it applies to them, Chavarin said. The norm is for people to take the ostrich approach and just bury their heads in the sand. Were trying to normalize financial planning – get people to think about it like preventive medicine.

Neediest probably working

He admitted, though, that the people most in need of financial help – those who are deep in debt, who may be living paycheck to paycheck and have never given any thought to preparing for their financial future – probably wouldnt make it to Saturdays event.

We market this to people who are in crisis, Chavarin said. But the people were trying to reach are probably working right now at their second or third job.

Many of the people who showed up for advice said they realized after meeting with a financial planner that they were in better shape than they thought – and that they had friends or family members who could probably benefit more from a consultation.

Edrick Pascal of Alameda came to the event for a second opinion on investments hes made for his retirement. Hes in good shape, he said. But hed hoped his girlfriend would tag along.

She needs the help, said Pascal, 34, who came alone to the event. She has loans. Its not that its embarrassing for her, but its too much for her to understand on her own.

Spreading the word

Pascal said he managed to get some information for his girlfriend and he hopes that will encourage her to seek out more help. San Francisco resident Diana Kane, 69, had a similar plan for her family and friends.

She had her own questions about retirement and a complicated home loan, but she also came with questions from half a dozen family members. Kane had hoped that some of her nieces and nephews – young adults just starting out – would attend, and had even registered them for the event. But on Saturday she was on her own.

Theres no financial sense in our youth right now, Kane said. They say, Retirement? No, Im not going to think about that. I tell my nieces and nephews to max out their 401Ks, and they look at me like, 401-what?

They have to be smarter, she said. Its scary for them.

Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: eallday@sfchronicle.com

Your Choices for Financial Planning

Displaying the complexity of the investment possibilities, there are many different kinds of financial planners available to the affluent investor.

Financial planning can be done by any number of individuals who do not have financial planning certification. Attorneys, bankers, insurance agents and mutual fund representatives are all capable of providing financial planning services, but they are not certified, registered or licensed for that specific purpose.

Acronym designations are a big part of financial planning, and here are some of the designations that indicate a certain degree of study and testing.

A Certified Financial Planner has done a lot of work to get where he or she is today. A CFP is required to take courses in estate planning, insurance, investing, retirement and taxes, as well as a 10-hour, 285-question exam. They must pass the CFPs ethical requirements, and serve a two-year apprenticeship under an established CFP.

The advantage of a CFP is that they can answer almost any question, up to a point. They are like a general practicioner in medicine. They have as much or more general knowledge than any other kind of financial planner. The CFP title is considered the most prestigious title among financial planners.

As titles go, Certified Public Accountant is about as specific a designation as possible. CPAs are accountants first and foremost, and have taken the CPA exam that covers accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, ethics and taxes. While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. It is a matter of the level of testing.

CPAs know accounting but do not provide knowledge beyond accounting. If they do, they get other certifications. However, a CPA can tell you how to make the correct decision with your investments as it relates to tax penalties and liabilities.

A CPA who wants to expand services into personal finance can become a Personal Finance Specialist, who must complete 60 hours of continuing professional education every three years in order to display the PFS designation. A PFS is a CPA who has been trained to help investors plan all aspects of their wealth. In specific terms, a PFS studies retirement planning, estate planning, life insurance and investment strategies.

A Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) is a designation from the Securities and Exchange Commission for a person or company that provides advice and recommendations on securities. An RIA has a fiduciary relationship with the investor, which means the RIA has an obligation to provide proper investment advice that always serves the clients best interests.

A Chartered Financial Analyst is an investment expert, who undergoes three years of classwork, an extensive and exhaustive exam, and four years of work in the field before earning the CFA designation. In many cases, CFAs end up working for financial institutions, or start their own companies. For most personal investing tasks, a CFA is beyond the scope of an individuals needs.

The most popular choice for wealthy investors based on Spectrem research is the Full Service Broker, who is indeed a stock broker but offers research and advice on retirement planning and tax information. If an investors needs concentrate on the stock market, a Full Service Broker is a good match. If an investor wants more of an all-encompassing financial plan, the other options above might be better suited to their needs.

There are also designations for advisors who work in specific investment industries, such as life insurance or estate planning. A Chartered Life Underwriter is an expert in life insurance products, and takes many of the same courses a CFP does, but does not take the board exam.

A Chartered Financial Consultant also handles life insurance and estate planning, but concentrates on general financial planning rather than specific investment plans. A ChFC also is not board certified.

There are also specialists in employee benefit plans, called Certified Employee Benefit Specialists, who are required to pass courses in insurance, retirement, pension, and regulatory issues related to benefit plans. A CEBS is a good resource for questions about your employee benefits plan, but is not likely to be able to handle your entire investment portfolio needs.

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Success story: Financial firm offers comprehensive services

Schlager Schlager Levin offers both comprehensive financial planning and tax planning. From left to right are business partners Ken Levin, Reina Schlager and Robert Schlager. / Andrea Rumbaugh/The News-Press