Not a criminal, but a victim — a twist on identity theft

Image0073Some stories are almost too strange to believe — or too strange for fiction. This one is frighteningly real — and may give you a few story ideas.

The Missoulian reported earlier this year that last February, federal Homeland Security agents obtained a search warrant for the home of a NW Montana man they suspected of trafficking child pornography. They quickly concluded that the man was not a trafficker, but himself the victim of a form of identity theft. The real trafficker had used readily-available software called E-Phex to establish what’s called a “peer-to-peer connection,” making it appear that emails he sent distributing child pornography had come from another man’s computer.

Once that became clear, according to a lengthy story in the Daily InterLake, the department publicly announced that the man was “not the subject of, or a person of interest in, an investigation. … We believe he is an innocent victim of cybertheft.” The department would not reveal how the thief obtained the man’s Stell’s IP address or how they concluded that it had been stolen, to avoid revealing their plan to catch the thief and trafficker.

The Homeland Security spokesman acknowledged that it was rare for a law enforcement agency to make such a public announcement, but the computer owner is an older man who volunteers with a local charity that suspended him after learning of the warrant and suspicions, which were widely published in Montana. Local agents asked the regional spokesman to speak out to clear his name. “The agents in Montana saw an injustice was occurring and wanted to make it right,” the InterLake reports.

The computer owner and his wife were questioned extensively, separately and together, for several hours. More details on the investigation and its toll on the couple in the InterLake article.

(Photo: Flathead Lake in winter, by Leslie)