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U.S. postal inspectors stamp out crime in Showtime's movie

Tuesday, March 07, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was a sign, if there ever was one. And it was right there on Jonathan Silverman's VISA bill.

Someone -- other than the actor -- had charged more than $10,000 worth of stereo and electronic equipment at an Arizona shopping mall. So when Silverman, Louis Gossett Jr. and others huddled to select a subject for a second "Inspectors" movie, Silverman voted for credit-card fraud and identity theft.

And that became the focus of "The Inspectors 2: A Shred of Evidence," a Showtime movie premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday as part of the network's free preview weekend.

Louis Gossett Jr., left, and Jonathan Silverman portray U.S. postal inspectors in the Showtime movie "The Inspectors 2: A shred of Evidence." 

An invitation-only audience will get an advance look at the film tonight at the Byham Theater, Downtown. Silverman is expected to attend, along with Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth H. Weaver and other law enforcement officials.

"Inspectors 2" is about U.S. postal inspectors, an elite force of 2,200 men and women who carry badges and firearms and spend their days tracking down con artists, mail bombers, drug traffickers, child pornographers and other lawbreakers. It stars Silverman, Gossett and Michael Madsen and is a sequel to "The Inspectors," Showtime's highest-rated original production of 1998.

"The first time, it dealt with mail-bombing," Silverman said last week by phone from Los Angeles. "It was based on an actual case, and it was very dramatic and exciting, and bombs were going off and people's limbs were blown apart, but it was hard to actually relate to the story from the sense of oh, could this really happen to me? ... The chances are, it's not going to happen to you."

But identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime today, and Silverman speaks from personal experience.

"They're not exactly sure how it happened, whether it was some shady clerk at a grocery store or gas station. Somehow, my number with the expiration date was jotted down, and they were able to make a new card," probably testing it by buying $1 or $2 worth of gasoline.

    Related article:

Identity theft: An ounce of prevention buys peace of mind


Still, he considers himself lucky. "There are people who lose their entire credit, entire identity, and they have no idea. It could be happening to you and me right now," he added.

In "The Inspectors 2," a con artist played by Madsen steals credit-card applications by the fistful, forges signatures, changes the addresses and uses the cards to take huge cash advances. He then tries to permanently silence his accomplices.

If nothing else, the movie will remind you to rip up those applications and be careful when discarding medical or other documents with your Social Security number. Silverman, for one, is now the proud owner of a well-used shredder.

Before tackling the role of U.S. Postal Inspector Alex Urbina the first time, Silverman spent some time with the Southern California branch of the service.

"When I was offered the film, like most of America, I knew absolutely nothing about the Postal Inspection Service, and it's sad because it's one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the country. It was put together in the days of Benjamin Franklin."

During the making of the movies, inspectors served as technical advisers, offering tips on when the characters would draw their guns or reach for their handcuffs. "They were having such a thrill being on a movie set and lending their expertise, it was terrific," Silverman says.

One of those advisers was John Wisniewski, a U.S. postal inspector and supervisory agent of the Financial Crimes Task Force, based at the main Pittsburgh post office on California Avenue. "Unbeknownst to me, my headquarters gave them my name as someone who investigated identity theft and knew about the topic," he says.

He consulted regularly by telephone, read the script, helped out with the sort of documentation investigators would gather and traveled to Vancouver, which substitutes for Baltimore in the movie.

"They called me once when I was on a stakeout on an identity-theft case," Wisniewski said. "They could hear police chatter in the background and thought that was hilarious. At some point, they asked me to come up to Vancouver, check out the set and hopefully help out."

Wisniewski says that more than 500,000 people are victimized each year by identity theft. "A lot of people find out when they go to apply for a mortgage or car loan or open up a bank account," he says. They obtain credit reports reflecting cards they never applied for, received or made a payment against.

The Post-Gazette published a story in August about a duplicitous doppelganger who stole a local lawyer's identity and racked up $60,000 in debt.

Pittsburgh officials recently worked on a case in which Washington, D.C., criminals came here, rented apartments and waited for the mail to flow in. "They'd gotten the identities of a number of people, including a federal prosecutor out of Washington, D.C."

Thieves filch information from dumpsters and overflowing mailboxes and sometimes double-swipe a credit card during a legitimate transaction. That was the case with a Pittsburgh scam in which three men were charged in late 1998 and early '99 with stealing the credit card numbers of restaurant patrons. They used counterfeit cards to make $300,000 in purchases.

Before tonight's movie, members of the Financial Crimes Task Force will be recognized for their fight against identity theft. The task force, which unites the Pittsburgh and Allegheny County police departments, district attorney's office, FBI, Secret Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has been around for five years.

"There's no sign of us going away. We've been getting additional resources," as criminals find new ways to beat security measures. Although Pittsburgh has been spared the epidemic that's hit other cities, Wisniewski says, "Law enforcement really has a task ahead of them."

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