The Identity Thief 

How One Woman Gamed the State Government—Again and Again

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GANGSTABITCH CATALYA LEWIS-ROBINSON was in trouble again.

It was February, and Lewis-Robinson's probation officer had turned up at her Portland apartment to poke around. What the officer saw raised serious questions.

Why did Lewis-Robinson have birth certificates in various states of completion—one even bearing an infant's footprint? And what about the completed hospital form, offering specific details of a birth dated, ominously, two months in the future?

Lewis-Robinson was childless. What was she planning to do with these things?

The officer took the alleged forgeries—makeshift records of a fictive baby boy named Dy'Saiah. Lewis-Robinson was arrested for a probation violation, and later charged with identity theft.

That's a common enough occurrence in Portland, but the contorted path stretching from the implausibly named "Gangstabitch" back to Daeshauna L. Lewis—the actual name of the 25-year-old awaiting trial in the Multnomah County Detention Center—warrants scrutiny.

It's a sad tale, in a way, detailing the misdeeds of a troubled young woman apparently desperate for motherhood.

Mostly, though, it's confounding. Because along the way Lewis was able to con her way into fraudulent driver's licenses, and manipulate birth records she had nothing to do with. She obtained thousands in state benefits for which she was clearly not qualified. And she did all of this more than once.

The sequence of events that led Lewis to her current predicament points, more than anything, to a worrying ease with which our vital data can be manipulated to bizarre ends.

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Take her moniker.

Gangstabitch Catalya Lewis-Robinson is not—has never been—Lewis' actual name. But you'd never know that by looking at the valid Oregon ID card issued unquestioningly, twice, by the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicles Services Division (DMV).

In the last five years, Lewis has also used the name Tiffany Ann Louise Myers-Lewis. She's been a mother, in the state's eyes, to a baby she never gave birth to. And that baby—a real, existing baby—has had two names in its short life courtesy of Lewis, and helped the woman secure thousands from a state agency that might have easily discerned the fraud.

Finally, in the last five years, Lewis has been indicted at least three times on counts of fraud and identity theft, twice emerging from convictions and continuing to stymie the system.

State agencies are loath to talk about the specifics of the case, and say they've followed proper procedures. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that it's all been far, far too easy.

"My jaw is just dropped open," says Tiffany Couch, a Vancouver-based forensic accountant who reviewed the case. "I'm going to be honest with you, this is truly astounding. I hope this is a wake-up call for these agencies to change their practices."

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Tiffany Ann Myers' Social Security card was missing, and someone was using her food stamp benefits. In an October 2007 report to police, a pregnant Myers indicated she thought her former roommate, Daeshauna Lewis, was to blame.

Lewis, it would transpire, had stolen the card. But despite being given the perpetrator's name and a description, police were stumped. “No suspects or leads,” the terse police report bafflingly concluded. Lewis was free to do what she wanted.

And when Myers gave birth to a girl in March 2008, her former roommate was ready.

Lewis' promptly changed the baby's name. Less than two weeks into her life, little Kimora Jade Myers suddenly found herself ponderously named Kyresha Jade Louise Myers-Lewis. Lewis also changed the mother's last name on the record to Myers-Lewis.

This should not have been allowed.

Editing birth certificate information in Oregon is less stringent in the first year of an infant's life than it is later. The state is accustomed to fixing hospital typos, or dealing with parents' indecisiveness.

Even so, you need to prove you're a child's parent or guardian while filling out an affidavit to secure the change. But documents show vital records staffers casually made the birth certificate changes, requiring apparently no proof Lewis was the baby's mother. It was only after the office was later alerted by Oregon Health and Science University—where the baby was born—that vital records staff began to suspect fraud, records show.

Lewis also applied for food stamps and other benefits for "her" daughter. Again, she'd have been armed with nothing but a Social Security card. It's hard to tell whether this application was granted—the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) won't release benefit information—but if it wasn't approved, later efforts would be.

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Lewis moved on to the Multnomah County Courthouse.

Oregon law requires potential name changes be posted for at least two weeks before an ultimate hearing on the matter. People rarely look at the petitions, clerks say, but if you'd checked from April 4 to May 15, 2008, when the change became legal, you'd have seen Daeshauna Louise Lewis was set on becoming Tiffany Louise Ann Myers-Lewis—a bastardized version of her friend's name, and essentially the name that now appeared beside "mother" on the baby's birth certificate.

While she waited for the change to become official, Lewis stayed busy.

She received a copy of the birth certificate she'd fraudulently changed, and promptly used it to, again, apply for a variety of benefits from DHS available only to parents.

And she visited the DMV, an agency that's allowed Lewis to do pretty much whatever she wants with her Oregon ID. In this instance, Lewis wanted the name on her ID to read "Tiffany Ann Myers." She'd have had no proof a judge had signed off on that name change (it wouldn't become legal for weeks), yet Lewis strode from the DMV that day with yet another document declaring her false identity to the world.

And maybe all of her success at gaming the state had made her cocky—because, in mid-May 2008, she decided to try and bamboozle a federal agency. In two separate visits to a Social Security office, Lewis attempted to order replacement Social Security cards for both the baby (with its laborious new name) and herself (with hers).

But if three state agencies were happy to swallow her narrative, the federal government was not. Lewis was indicted on two counts of Social Security fraud in late June 2008. In November of that year, she was sentenced to three years of federal probation and ordered to change her name back.

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It would be easy to assume a federal fraud conviction might make things more difficult for an identity thief and fraud to carry out their maneuvers. But if that's true in some instances, it was not in Lewis'.

She had difficulties after her sentencing—being twice found in violation of her probation for not enrolling in a halfway house—but the judge's order that she change her name went unheeded. Lewis still had the fraudulent birth certificate and state ID, and used them to petition DHS for more benefits.

It wasn't until June 2009, more than six months after her conviction, that she legally changed her name back to Daeshauna Louise Lewis.

Even then, court documents suggest, DHS was permissive. In July of 2009, Lewis visited a caseworker and claimed Kyresha, the baby, was in her care. The next month, Lewis applied for benefits under a DHS program that offers money to parents fleeing an abusive situation. Her application was approved on the spot, documents say, with more than $400 in payments to Portland hotels on her behalf.

October 2009 brought another lapse at the DMV: Lewis was once again issued an ID in the name of Tiffany Ann Myers, though that was not her legal name.

But authorities' attention had been piqued somewhere along the line.

The following month, she was indicted again—this time in Multnomah County Circuit Court—on 13 counts of identify theft and theft in the second degree. The specifics of the charges aren't clear in court documents, but it appears at least three arose from Lewis fraudulently applying for state benefits. There are also charges related to Lewis assuming the identities of two women: Tiffany Myers and Lillian Lovincey.

A December 2009 document recommending Lewis be denied bail noted: "Ms. Lewis tends to be untruthful, is very manipulative, is unsupervisable and is a risk for failing to appear at court."

The State of Oregon, it seemed, was beginning to catch on.

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How can it be this simple? Even if Lewis is eventually made to pay for her crimes, time and again, how are her charades allowed to go so far?

In part, she's been able to exploit laxities in the DHS, DMV, and the Oregon health Authority's vital records division.

The DMV has issued valid Oregon ID cards to Lewis in names that weren't hers four times since 2008—twice under the patently ridiculous name "Gangstabitch." DHS apparently took her on her word that she had a child on the basis of fraudulently acquired documents. The state's vital records office benignly accepted her stories.

Of the three agencies, only DMV would speak directly to Lewis' case, though employees in its fraud wing refused an interview.

"I think everyone on earth has requested this," a technical assistant in the department's records division told a Mercury reporter inquiring after Lewis' ID history. "This has been pretty bizarre."

David House, a DMV spokesman, says Lewis must have had a "really good forgery" to get the IDs.

"This is a really bizarre case, by the way," he says. "Here's the problem with her approach. She's created a clear trail that's pointed directly at her by going to government agencies to do this."

Even so, the DMV has routinely issued Lewis valid Oregon IDs under false names. That's a clear deviation from department policy.

"That's why this has gotten our fraud prevention manager's attention," House says. "Is there anything we can do to prevent this?"

DHS refused to talk specifically about the case, but Chief Fraud Investigator John Carter discussed safeguards the agency employs.

It can be difficult, he says, to discern fraud on the front end.

"We would like to be more proactive; we find ourselves in a reactive situation," he says, noting: "Eventually they will be caught."

Since he joined the agency in 2004, Carter says DHS has taken steps to tighten up fraud prevention efforts. In 2005, a structural change ensured everyone tasked with vetting accounts worked under a single administrator, he says. "Immediately the communications between the different units improved."

There is also a "fraud work group" at DHS, meeting regularly to correct issues, Carter says.

And DHS touts reasonably impressive stats. The department says the rate of food stamp fraud in 2012 was one half of a percent. Fraud for cash assistance aimed at needy families was less than 1.5 percent the same year.

Carter concedes these are merely the cases he and his 24-person staff pick up on. But even if the numbers are accurate, Lewis' case suggests problems.

Court documents indicate that well after DHS had reason to believe Lewis was a thief—she was convicted of ID theft related to DHS fraud in 2010—she continued to apply and qualify for benefits aimed at mothers.

"Once you steal these benefits, you should perhaps have a different criteria you need in order to receive them again," says Kevin Demer, a deputy district attorney with Multnomah County, now prosecuting Lewis for a second time. "It's just the principle and the trust that we're minding the store, that our resources are being used effectively."

Lewis' attorney, Gabriel Biello, declined to speak on the record for this story, and indicated he would advise his client not to speak to a reporter.

For its part, the Oregon Health Authority, which keeps birth and death certificates, stuck to its guns after being asked about Lewis’ exploits.

"That's the process that we have in place," says Jennifer Woodward, state registrar for vital records. "That's what's in rule and law, and the processes were followed."

Fraud experts that the Mercury asked to review Lewis' case said lax standards are only part of the problem.

"You know what this gets down to?" says Daniel Draz, a criminologist who crafted the fraud curriculum at Portland State University. "There's nothing you can give me right now to prove you're who you say you are."

It's pretty much true. Consider: At one point Lewis could have furnished a valid Social Security card, valid Oregon ID, and valid birth certificate listing herself as the mother of an infant—none of them obtained correctly. Would you have denied she was legitimate?

"Our big government challenge right now is people can go be whomever they want, even with protections in place," Draz says.

Part of that is due to the changing expectations for government documents over the years. The Social Security card, for instance, was conceived in the 1930s as a means to track income.

Now "it's kind of like an anchor piece," Draz says. "Once you get that, you can go get something else."

Henry Pontell, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, echoed the statement. "Social Security numbers were never meant to be used in that fashion," he says. "They've now become the gold standard for proving you are someone."

And driver's licenses, Demer points out, are used today well beyond their original intent.

"We as a society have asked DMV to modify and expand the scope for what it is used for, but they don't have the right tools for that," he says. "They're really good at showing a person can drive. Now it's being used as an ID."

But there's another factor at play here. Every person the Mercury shared Lewis' case with commented on the confidence, or bluster, she must have employed to carry out her schemes.

"A lot of this has to do with personal ingenuity, and some social engineering," Pontell says. "Clearly she got a line and sort of kept carrying it forth."

"I don't see these as horrendous flaws, but more as someone who has a good knowledge of some of these aspects of the system," says Tom Holt, an assistant professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. But he notes, "The amount of times she was able to do this is surprising and certainly a suggestion there should perhaps be some sort of flagging mechanisms."

In fact, court documents offer mixed views of Lewis’ abilities as a communicator. In a report from the investigatory arm of the Social Security Administration, a DHS caseworker is quoted as calling Lewis “easy to talk to.”

But the same report also quotes a staffer who dealt with Lewis when she applied for federal disability benefits.

“She was mumbling a lot,” the worker, Angie Baker, said. “She would sometimes ask what I meant with each question. She seemed like she was tired and wasn't interested in doing the interview.”

Lewis might be a confident huckster or merely someone fighting with her demons—court records indicate she is bipolar and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever the case, she's not easily dissuaded.

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Gangstabitch emerged seemingly from nowhere.

After pleading guilty to four of 13 counts, Lewis was sentenced to 13 months in prison in January 2010. Upon her release, court records indicate she filed a restraining order against her father, who allegedly choked and yelled at her a number of times, including an instance when, she wrote, "he started to yell at me about a check I cashed in my other name."

In November 2011, she was indicted for allegedly stealing from a Macy's. It appears she had an opportunity to set aside the charge with community service, but court documents indicate Lewis claimed she could not complete the service "because of childcare issues."

Then, in June of last year, Lewis strolled into a DMV branch and changed the name on her ID: Gangstabitch Catalya Lewis-Robinson. (She would change it back to Daeshauna two months later, then back to Gangstabitch five months after that).

She opened a US Bank account under the name, and tried twice unsuccessfully to cash stolen checks at the bank, documents allege. She applied for an apartment with the name, providing a fake Social Security card and ID number.

And she kept pressing DHS for benefits. According to court documents, Lewis "applied for in person and received some governmental benefits in 2012 that were only eligible to domestic violence victims with children or who were pregnant."

Then, early this year, things got eerie.

"During one of these visits to a governmental benefits office [in] January 2013, the defendant actually had an infant with her that she claimed was her own child from a very recent delivery, in order to qualify for additional benefits," says a recent motion asking a judge to increase Lewis' bail. "When asked by [DHS] Investigator [Laura] Palodichuk, the defendant was not able to provide the infant's real name or birth mother, even though she claimed she has known the mother for a long time."

The next month, during several visits to Lewis' apartment, Multnomah County Probation Officer Jamie Tynan began noticing disturbing details. On one visit, records say, Tynan saw diapers, bottles, and a car seat. Four days later, she found the forged birth certificate for make-believe Dy'Saiah and the weird details of a future birth. The next week there was a "very realistic infant doll appropriately situated in a car seat."

Tynan became worried Lewis might steal an infant, so she distributed flyers to area hospitals. Lewis was cited for a probation violation, landing her in court custody while fresh charges were filed.

Lewis was, and is, off the streets of Portland—for the time being. There's little indication it will be prepared for her when she returns.

"Our government knows that this woman has ripped us off many times," says Demer, the deputy DA. "And they keep letting her do it."

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