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Identity Theft and Murder

Killing to Steal a Life

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

In the middle of an overseas trip last week, I got a notice that my bank account was overdrawn. This was quite a surprise. I didn’t have tons of money in it but I knew how much I had. Even more alarming was the notice in Spanish that subsequently appeared in my email, confirming a large (and unauthorized by me) transfer from my personal bank account into my PayPal account. Fortunately, PayPal nipped any use of these newly acquired funds in the bud and my bank refunded me all overdraft charges. So, while I suffered some minor inconvenience – not being able to use my debit card on vacation and the time it took to straighten things out once I got home – I was financially and emotionally no worse for wear.

I know how lucky I am. In 2017, nearly 15 million consumers experienced identity theft , losing approximately 6.8 billion dollars. The most common forms of identity thefts are similar to what I experienced; someone fraudulently gains access to another person’s bank account or credit cards and uses it to steal money. However, the goal of identity theft isn’t always financial and, as can be seen from these two recent cases, sometimes there’s a lot more is at stake than money.

Lois Ann Riess and Pamela Sellers Huchinson

Lois Riess is a 56-year-old Minnesota grandmother who is currently wanted for two murders. The body of her husband, David Riess, was discovered March 23, 2018; Dodge County authorities say his wife shot him and stole his Cadillac Escalade and $11,000 after forging his signature on his business account. According to various news sources, she has a history of problem gambling and financial fraud, having abused her position as guardian of her disabled sister’s trust to blow $78,000 of her sibling’s money at the casinos.

After murdering her spouse, Ms. Riess then drove to Fort Meyers, Florida, where she met and befriended 59-year-old lookalike Pamela Sellers Hutchinson. Video surveillance from a local restaurant and the victim’s condominium complex show the two of them laughing and talking together. Investigators say that after shooting Hutchinson in the heart, Riess stole her victim’s identification, credit cards, and car. She withdrew $5,000 from her victim’s bank account and made credit card purchases before security alerts shut them down.

It appears that Ms. Hutchinson was targeted not because od her financial resources but because of her physical resemblance to her murderer, who planned to use the victim’s identity to evade capture and start a new life. We don’t yet know what ruse Ms. Riess used to get close to her victim; referring to Ms. Hutchinson’s soft heart and trusting nature, her grieving relatives suspect Ms. Hutchinson was given some kind of a “sob story” and wanted to help. This hypothesis is certainly consistent with how many female psychopaths operate.

Viktoria Nasyrova and Olga Tsvyk

For six months, Victoria Nasyrova regularly trekked from Brooklyn to Queens so Olga Tsvyk could do her eyelashes. Olga thought it was ridiculous for her client to travel so far for a service that could be done much closer, but she was certainly glad to have the business. Perhaps, she thought, Viktoria felt comfortable with her. They had a lot in common; they both spoke Russian, were about the same age, and, in fact, looked strikingly similar.

As it turns out, Olga was right for the wrong reason; Viktoria was attracted to Olga for their similarities, but not because they put her at ease. Viktoria, an international fugitive wanted in Russia for the murder of a 54- year-old neighbor, was looking for a new identity and a dead Olga, she believed, could give it to her.

In August 2016, Viktoria called and asked to come to Olga’s home for “emergency eyelash repair;” when Olga hesitated, Viktoria sweetened the deal by telling her she would bring cheesecake as a thank-you. And bring it she did, laced with a powerful Russian tranquilizer six times stronger than Valium. Fortunately, Olga’s landlord found her unconscious two days later, dressed in a negligee with pills scattered around her. It looked like a suicide attempt. All of her identifying documents – passport, employment authorization card – and some cash were gone. Olga made a full recovery and Viktoria currently sits in prison at Riker’s Island awaiting trial for attempted murder and a host of other charges.

Ghosting: Revisiting an Old Form of Identity Theft

The kind of identity theft Viktoria Nasyrova and Lois Riess attempted is known as ghosting , when someone uses the personal information of a dead person, either for monetary gain or to conceal their true identity. It’s nothing new. For hundreds of years, criminals who needed to disappear or people who wanted to start a new life would steal entire an entire identity, including the name, social security number, family history, career, and life story. Most often, they would assume the identity of a dead person whose identities were close to their own and, ideally, someone whose death was never recorded.

Sometimes, however, it would happen after a murder. During the Wild West era, for example, bank robbers and other outlaws were known to murder people for the sake of assuming a new persona, enabling them to hide out from the law. Today, murdering someone AND stealing their ID is rare, but when it happens, it often is the result of a long and premeditated con. Modern day killers who tried to assume their victims have included a criminally inclined identical twin who attempted to assassinate and impersonate her law-abiding sister and a man who befriended and murdered a neighbor and then assumed his identity in order to steal his victim’s million-dollar trust.

It’s hard to draw a useful life lesson from these disturbing stories. Should we, out of an abundance of caution, really refuse to help an acquaintance or a friend who asks for it? A life spent eternally questioning the motive of others may keep us physically safer but is also likely to leave us emotionally barren. On the other hand, there are people who will make up lies about how they were betrayed by someone or how life has treated them poorly for the sole purpose of preying on your sympathy so they can take advantage of you. And those of us who are trusting are most likely to fall for them.

Perhaps the best strategy is to take what people say at face value but doublecheck what they do and who they say they are. In other words, trust but verify.