A nearly nine-month investigation by detectives with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has led to the arrest of a suspected identity thief believed to have bilked several local victims out of at least $156,000.

Imoukhuede Ohiwerei Ehimika

Imoukhuede Ohiwerei Ehimika

Detectives began their investigation in early April after a Santa Barbara area man reported that someone had used the Internet to transfer more than $5,000 from the victim’s legitimate bank account into a fraudulent bank account that recently had been opened under his name.

Over the next two months, detectives began working three more cases in which the victims, who lived in the Goleta/Santa Barbara area, reported similar crimes in which someone had used the victim’s name to open a fraudulent bank account and then transferred thousands of dollars from the victim’s legitimate bank account. In one case, the suspect transferred $65,500 into a fraudulent account; in the two other cases, the suspect transferred $11,500 and $16,500.

In each case, the suspect would visit various Wal-Mart stores in Southern California at which he would purchase money orders with the funds.

In September, another local victim reported that someone had transferred $58,000 from his bank account in a similar fashion.

About this time, sheriff’s detectives had identified a suspect, 26-year-old Imoukhuede Ohiwerei Ehimika, who had moved to the area from his native Nigeria to attend UCSB, where he is no longer a student.

On Dec. 21, sheriff’s detectives served a search and arrest warrant at Ehimika’s residence on the 200 block of Mathilda Drive in Goleta. Ehimika was taken into custody at that time.

Further investigation revealed the victims were selected by someone trolling through neighborhoods looking for unsecured wireless Internet connections. Once a residence with a vulnerable signal was identified, critical personal information was obtained from the victims and their home equity accounts tapped.

At this time, detectives have identified five local residents who were targeted, but they’re urging anyone who has noticed large sums of money being withdrawn from their home equity accounts to call 805.681.4150.

Ehimika was booked into the Santa Barbara County Jail on several charges related to identity theft. He was released Tuesday after posting $150,000 bail. The case has been forwarded to the county District Attorney’s Office, which will decide the charges to be filed.

Click here for information about protecting yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft.

— Drew Sugars is a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.