NEW YORK (AP) – Investigators said they uncovered an identity-theft ring when one of the suspects tried to spring the scam on an elderly New Yorker and wound up speaking to his daughter, a deputy police chief.

“I felt they were trying to rip someone off. Experience tells you this was not legitimate,” said Deputy Chief Joellen Kunkel, a 26-year veteran of the New York Police Department.

A grand jury in Queens has indicted 11 people on charges that they posed as federal agents to persuade hundreds of victims to turn over personal data as part of an identity-theft scheme, prosecutors said Thursday.

Four people from Queens and seven from Massachusetts were arrested and face charges including enterprise corruption, conspiracy and fraud.

Authorities said the people cold-called random phone numbers, then zeroed in if they reached someone with a foreign-sounding name, particularly immigrants of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.

The callers claimed to be Department of Homeland Security agents doing a terrorism investigation and asked victims to contact a second group of conspirators posing as workers at a credit agency. Those scammers then had the victims turn over information including their credit card, Social Security and driver’s license numbers as well as their birth dates.

The ring used the information to wire money to accomplices or buy expensive items on credit. Nearly $1 million was stolen in all from people and businesses, investigators said.

Police began investigating in May after a member of the ring made a series of calls to the Kunkel family, speaking twice to a home health care aide before Chief Kunkel finally called a phone number left by one of the supposed federal agents to demand that he identify himself.

“I’m a fed,” the man said.

“I said, ‘I happen to be a chief in the New York City police department, and I don’t know who you are,”‘ Kunkel recounted at a news conference Thursday.

She said she overheard the man saying “We got the wrong people” just before he hung up.

Police launched a probe they called Operation Cookie Cutter, in honor of Kunkel’s nickname: Cookie.

Investigators eventually engaged in surveillance and tapped dozens of telephones to make the case, authorities said.

“This case is a reminder to be vigilant, particularly during the holidays, when scam artists are most active,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.

The indictment claims the ring was led by Vincent Grillo, 38, of Queens, and Arthur Rizzo, 52, of East Boston, Mass.

A judge ordered Grillo held on $900,000 cash bail at an arraignment Wednesday, prosecutors said. Rizzo was being held in Massachusetts pending extradition to New York.

Attorneys for Grillo and three other defendants did not immediately return phone messages or did not answer the telephone Thursday. A woman who identified herself as Rizzo’s mother answered the telephone at his home yesterday and tearfully said she knew her son had been arrested but didn’t know why. She said she didn’t think he had an attorney.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly urged anyone who believes he or she was a victim of the scheme to come forward.

He also urged people to be suspicious of anyone who calls, claiming to be a law enforcement official, then asks for personal data like a credit card number. Officers do not take such information over the telephone, he said.

“If you get a call like that,” he said, “it is definitely a scam.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.