The macabre fraud scheme that federal authorities in Puerto Rico revealed on Thursday warns citizens, as well as the public and private sectors, about the risks of identity theft and the need for greater protection against that.
The five defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence. However, the scheme described by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Puerto Rico opens the door to analyze domestic and corporate scenarios in order to identify ways to control access to critical information.
According to the indictment, most of the victims were seniors at an elderly care center owned by the alleged ringleader of the group. The center was closed in 2011 after authorities refused to renew the license due to mismanagement and the facilities’ poor conditions.
Three other defendants were insurance agents with easy access to personal data. According to the federal government, they all conspired to obtain personal information from 22 citizens to buy 33 life insurance policies with potential benefits for the five defendants. This is how they would have taken obtained more than $1.5 million in a scheme linking them to five deaths. Victims and their families were unaware that others were using their personal data, two people were shot, and two others were struck by a car. According to the U.S. Attorney´s Office, there were four other deaths in the care center attributed to natural causes, however they did not rule out that they might have been caused by economic motivations.
If true, these allegations show how insensitive and unscrupulous people can be for money or pure ambition. They also show new scenarios for identity theft that need to be prevented urgently.
The platform of the Federal Trade Commission provides information on warning signs and steps people can take to protect themselves from identity theft. Federal authorities suggest citizens, among other recommendations, to keep an eye on bank accounts movements and credit history and look for help if they detect irregularities related to their purchases or services.
However, many people, such as the elderly, are more vulnerable to these crimes and they depend on the good faith of service providers and, above all, on the care of their relatives.
It is crucial to protect the elderly from becoming easy targets of unscrupulous criminals who commit fraud through identity theft. Sometimes fraud prevention measures are simple and begin with clear guidance for these citizens not to provide personal information to strangers, not to share passwords or copy them into easily accessible documents.
Meanwhile, agencies and companies that handle citizens' personal information have the responsibility to ensure that they implement rigorous controls and that employees with access to this type of data firmly comply with protocols.
Above all, situations such as the one described by the U.S. Attorney´s Office reveal the need to strengthen the island´s well known culture of ethics and solidarity. Our respect for life, care and protection of the most vulnerable; the value and sense of dignity and how we appreciate what we obtained through our own honest effort are the pillars of our culture, that we need to urgently recover along the road to the island´s reconstruction process.