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Belfair Couple Who Owned Pretexing Company and Biggest Client Sentenced to Prison Time

August 14, 2009

A Belfair, Washington, couple, EMILIO TORRELLA, 37, and BRANDY N. TORRELLA, 28, were sentenced this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to six months in prison and two years supervised release for Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud, Wire Fraud, and Aggravated Identity Theft. The two were key players in a group of ten private investigators across the country indicted in December 2007, by a federal grand jury in Seattle in connection with a scheme to illegally obtain confidential information on thousands of citizens. To obtain confidential tax, medical and employment information workers at the TORRELLAs’ company, BNT Investigations, would pose as another individual to get government agencies including the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and various state employment security offices to provide confidential information. The year-long investigation dubbed “Operation Dialing for Dollars,” also revealed that some workers posed as representatives of doctors’ offices to get medical or pharmacy records. At sentencing U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton said the invasion of privacy has a corrosive effect on institutions. "It poisons the culture.... It poisons the culture we have built for 200 years."

In addition to the TORRELLAs, BNT Investigations biggest client, VICTORIA J. TADE, 53, of San Diego, California, was also sentenced to six months in prison and three years supervised release. Between 2005 and 2007, TADE provided 60 percent of BNT Investigations income, some $345,000. In asking that TADE get a sentence comparable to the TORRELLAs, Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Frierson wrote to the court that TADE “is the individual who introduced BNT to the concept of directly defrauding the IRS to obtain detailed tax information, a feat that amazed other investigators and which made BNT a unique and valuable source.”

According to documents filed in the case, private investigators across the country, gave the TORRELLAs the names, addresses, social security numbers and other personally identifying information of people they had been hired to investigate. The subjects of the investigation had not given permission for their personal information to be disseminated to the TORRELLAs. Using that information the TORRELLAs, and their employees, would call various government agencies, financial institutions, pharmacies and hospitals, posing as other people, and asking for their personal records. Between 2005 and 2007, the TORRELLAs admit in their plea agreements that their firm used pretexting to get information on 1,800 people nationwide.

The private investigators had been hired by attorneys, insurance companies and collection agencies to investigate the backgrounds of opposing parties, witnesses and benefit claimants, and to uncover assets or income. The TORRELLAs promoted their services to the private investigators.

The TORRELLAs and their employees used a variety of strategies to trick the government agencies to provide them information they wanted. With the IRS they would impersonate the taxpayer and ask for past tax returns, claiming that a bookkeeper was being investigated for embezzlement. On other occasions they would similarly claim to be the taxpayer, in the hospital awaiting surgery, and needing the tax returns to demonstrate to the hospital that they could pay for the services. In calls to various agencies and financial institutions the “pretexters” claimed various hardships such as being a battered spouse, facing bankruptcy, foreclosure or serious illness. In one case the pretexter tried to claim she needed the information because a child had been abducted. BRANDY TORRELLA admitted in her plea agreement she called pharmacies and hospitals posing as someone from the subject’s doctor’s office, for the purpose of obtaining medical information. The TORRELLAs then forwarded all the information they obtained to the private investigators for fees ranging from $30 to $300 per record. Judge Leighton said, "I am flabbergasted by how much we as a people spend on people who will not follow simple rules... The Golden Rule ... you wouldn't want your info poached, so you shouldn't be poaching someone elses." Speaking to the Torrellas the Judge said, "You had to know it was wrong. To put someone on the phone pretending to be mentally retarded to extract information, is just wrong."

In their sentencing memos prosecutors note that those who had their personal information stolen remain uneasy as to why and how it was used.. “... this offense has caused foremost bewilderment and anxiety as the victims are unclear as to who exactly ordered the compromise of their information and how it may in the future be used against them. As for the agencies and institutions that were targeted, they now have to spend resources in assessing and shoring up their vulnerabilities. Government operations and financial institutions cannot function without the public being able to trust that the information that they hand to such institutions are safeguarded against compromise and abuse,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo. Judge Leighton ordered the TORRELLAs’ prison terms to be staggered so that one parent would be home with their children.

The case was investigated by the Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General (SSA-OIG), the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (DOL-OIG), and the Washington State Employment Security Department Office of Special Investigations.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Katheryn Kim Frierson and Tessa Gorman.

For additional information please contact Emily Langlie, Public Affairs Officer for the United States Attorney’s Office, at (206) 553-4110.

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