State and federal agents have broken up a nationwide "pretext" identity-theft scheme involving private detectives who obtained personal...

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State and federal agents have broken up a nationwide “pretext” identity-theft scheme involving private detectives who obtained personal information about their targets — from financial and medical records to tax returns — through deceit and lies, according to a federal grand-jury indictment unsealed Thursday.

The confidential records were purchased by attorneys, law firms, collection agents and others, and federal agents are “actively investigating” whether they might have broken the law as well, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Frierson.

“How far does the knowledge go up?” she asked at a news conference Thursday. “That is the critical question.”

Frierson declined to identify any of the buyers but said they “are an indication that this is a nationwide and extensive practice.”

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A Seattle grand jury indicted 10 private investigators, including three in Washington state. The others have offices in Houston; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Beaverton, Ore.; and San Diego. All are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Other charges include fraudulently obtaining Social Security and tax information.

U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan said the “pretext” prosecution — dubbed “Operation Dialing for Dollars” — is only the second of its kind. The first involved executives in the 2005 boardroom spy scandal that shook up management at computer giant Hewlett-Packard.

At the center of the new alleged conspiracy is a Belfair, Mason County, private investigation firm, BNT Investigations, and its owners, Emilio Torrella, 36, and his wife, Brandy, 27. The Torrellas and their office manager and researcher, 22-year-old Steven Berwick, allegedly used trickery, lies and technology to seek information from state and federal agencies about as many as 12,000 private citizens, according to the 21-count indictment.

According to prosecutors, it worked like this: The Torrellas would obtain information about an investigative target from clients or another private investigator — usually a name, date of birth and a Social Security number, Frierson said.

Using that information, the Torrellas or, more often, Berwick, would then pose as that person on the telephone and persuade employees at state and federal agencies to turn over additional confidential information that should be available only to the individual.

Investigators said those charged used a variety of tricks, including sophisticated voice-disguising technology and software that hides phone numbers from caller ID.

“They obtained actual copies of people’s tax returns from the IRS, or unemployment records, or wage data from Social Security,” said Ron Legan, the special agent in charge of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General.

Whoever bought the information, Legan said, had to know it was obtained illegally. “How else do you get a copy of someone’s tax return?” he asked.

Also charged in the indictment are Victoria Tade, 52, San Diego; Megan Ososke, 40, Beaverton, Ore.; Darci Templeton, 55, Houston; Esaun Pinto, 33, Brooklyn; Patrick Bombino, 58, Brooklyn; Robert Grieve, 67, Houston, and Ziad Sakhleh, 26, Houston.

The wire-fraud charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory two-year sentence that must be served consecutively with any other prison term.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com