[ISN] ID Theft 101: Beauty cons her way onto Ivy's Rolls as an ed. ringer

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Tue Jan 09 2007 - 03:05:22 PST


January 8, 2007

A cunning co-ed con artist was able to dupe some of the nation's top 
universities - including Harvard and Columbia - into granting her 
admission by stealing other people's identities, including that of a 
woman who has been missing for more than seven years, investigators have 

Esther Elizabeth Reed, 28, managed to attend Columbia University as a 
graduate student for two years under the name Brooke Henson before 
investigators caught wind of the scam last summer.

The real Henson had disappeared from her home in Travelers Rest, S.C., 
in 1999, and has not been seen since.

In a strange twist, Reed has been listed as a missing person herself 
since 1999, when she was last seen leaving a Seattle courthouse, where 
she was facing charges for forging checks she had stolen from her 

Since then, the brazen brunette beauty's path has been tortuous, but she 
appears to have used sophisticated and elaborate scams to steal several 
identities that she then used to gain entrance to California State 
University at Fullerton, Harvard and Columbia, where she studied 
criminology and psychology, investigators said.

"Reed's an incredibly smart and sophisticated con woman," said Travelers 
Rest police Investigator Jon Campbell, who has run the probe of Henson's 
disappearance since 1999.

"She's is an excellent impostor to the point of being pathological."

While investigators said they have no reason to believe Reed had 
anything to do with Henson's disappearance, she went to great lengths to 
assume the missing woman's identity. And unlike typical identity 
thieves, the motive did not appear to be financial.

"She didn't run up a whole lot of debts and bail, as is usual. She was 
living as Brooke Henson, which is very unusual," Campbell said.

But he said he was most shocked someone could approach an Ivy League 
college claiming to be someone they are not and talk their way in. He 
said the schools have been extremely uncooperative in helping him piece 
together what happened.

"They got caught with their pants down on this one, and they seem to be 
very embarrassed by it," he said. "And they should be, because they 
really aided her in this whole thing. They didn't check anything."

A spokesman for Columbia acknowledged someone named Brooke Henson had 
been enrolled but would not discuss it any further, citing federal 
student-privacy laws. A Harvard spokeswoman similarly declined to talk 
"about students real or fictitious." A message left at California State 
was not returned.

Reed's scam first came to police attention last June, when she tried to 
get a summer job as a housekeeper in Manhattan and identified herself as 
Henson. She used the missing girl's birthday and Social Security number.

When her prospective employer did a search on Henson's name, the first 
thing she found was a missing-persons Web site created by Henson's 

"She realized that the woman who had come to her had the same birth date 
and had a resemblance to the picture of Brooke Henson on the Web site, 
so she immediately called the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division," 
Campbell said. They, in turn, notified the NYPD, who sent a detective to 
Reed's campus apartment.

"Everyone suspected it was probably a case of a stolen identity, and we 
fully expected her to say, 'You got me. I'm not Brooke Henson,' " 
Campbell. "Well, to our surprise, she said the exact opposite."

Reed, pretending to be Henson, claimed she was estranged from her family 
and had run away. The detective then called Campbell.

"He called and said, 'You can clear your case.' But I was like, 'Hey, 
wait a minute.' Frankly, I believe that Brooke Henson is very likely 
dead, and I needed more proof - like DNA or fingerprints," Campbell 

He said that by claiming she was Henson, Reed almost pulled off a 
stunning con.

"If it hadn't been on this case - which I am very close to - we would 
have closed the file, and she would have had a completely laundered 
identity," he said.

When investigators contacted Reed just before July 4, she agreed to 
provide a DNA swab after the holiday but never showed up.

Investigators have now determined that Reed had been posing as Henson 
since 2004 but appeared to have gotten her Social Security number and 
other personal information later, when she managed to gain access 
through Vermont State Police computers to a missing-persons database 
accessible only to law-enforcement officials.

After Reed disappeared, Campbell immediately pressed Columbia to release 
her records, but the school stonewalled him, claiming that a flag had 
been placed on her file because she had once been the victim of domestic 

"I tried to explain that I was a police officer, but that didn't seem to 
help. We sent a state subpoena that they just ignored. We are still 
fighting with them. I had to go to the Secret Service [which 
investigates identity theft] before [Columbia] would budge," he said.

How Reed paid for her tuition is unclear, as Columbia has refused to 
turn over financial documents.

Detectives eventually gained access to Reed's apartment and discovered 
"she'd left almost everything behind," Campbell said.

"All she took was her cat, her toothbrush and her brushes and combs - 
anything with DNA on it," he said.

Among the possessions Reed left was an ID card naming her as Natalie 
Bowman, an identity she had stolen earlier and used to attend Cal-State 
and Harvard.

Reed seems to have followed in the footsteps of the real Natalie Bowman, 
29, who is currently a medical student at Columbia and appears to have 
attended Harvard before Reed.

Bowman did not return a call for comment.

Investigators also found Reed, while at Columbia, had dated several 
cadets at the West Point Military Academy and at least one midshipman at 
the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Fred Fleischman of Caledonia, Mich., said his son knew Reed as "Natalie 

"She comes across as very interested in whatever you're doing, she talks 
to you about you, but provides very little information on her own," the 
father said.

Campbell said conversations with the cadets and their families finally 
helped investigators get a true bead on who Reed really was - and that 
Reed's family finally confirmed the identity through pictures cops 

"She's changed drastically since I last heard from her. Her mother 
passed away in 1998, and I don't know if that sent her off the deep end, 
but she's a very different person now," said her father, Ernest Reed 
Jr., of Townsend, Mont.

But investigators also stumbled upon some alarming information.

At least one soldier's family told Campbell they saw that Reed 
frequently received large amounts of money wired to her from Germany and 
Italy. She also placed numerous lengthy calls to people in the 
Netherlands. And at some point, she traveled to Florida to have plastic 
surgery done on her face.

Then she allegedly tried to get a cadet to furnish her with a 
certificate from the Army's assault school.

"At this point, it started sounding like it could be espionage and not 
just identity theft," Campbell said.

Fleischman believes Reed was using Cold War-type espionage techniques - 
lining up people and information that she could use to her advantage.

Campbell said his office immediately turned over what they had found to 
the Army's Criminal Investigation Department. Officials there didn't 
return a call for comment.

As for Henson's family, the tantalizing possibility that their loved one
- who disappeared at age 19 when she went to buy a pack of cigarettes 
two blocks from her home - might still be alive raised great hope. But 
watching the possibility crumble in front of their eyes was almost more 
than they could bear.

"Most of us have come to terms with it, but her mother has really 
struggled," said Henson's aunt, Lisa.

Campbell said he's curious where Reed will surface again. "The $1 
million question is where she turns up next and as who."

Copyright 2007 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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