An Ohio woman chased down an identity thief. Now the hunt is back on

As Zina Wilson sat in front of her computer in her suburban Ohio home last year, she decided: You have ripped off the wrong family.

Wilson, 51, was fed up with her niece receiving eviction notices for apartments in Las Vegas she had never rented, about receiving notices from collection agencies for Wi-Fi in cities where she had never lived.

She would fight back in the online world, where she soon learned nothing can be trusted as real. Her search led her to gangs and criminals. Fearing for her safety, she agreed to tell her tale under one of the nom de plumes she used in her online research.

A suburban Ohio woman launched her own online investigation to help her niece who fell victim to an alleged scammer based in Las Vegas. Her sleuthing led to the arrest in September of Lashawnda Scales, 29, who is accused of 33 felony counts of fraud.

Online identity theft scams flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensnaring 1 in 6 Americans and leading to $52 billion in losses last year alone, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.

Despite having no experience in online investigations, Wilson became obsessed with the case. She came to see it as a righteous fight for justice against a criminal scheme that she would learn, clue by clue, sprawled across the country – one she believes involves dozens of victims.

“I will not let this go,” Wilson said. “It’s about my niece, but I hate when people do the wrong thing … knowingly stealing and ruining peoples’ lives.”

For individual victims, cleaning up a fraud case on average takes 16 hours of effort, Javelin estimates, with no guarantee of recouping losses. And identifying your perpetrator so criminal charges can be filed? Good luck.

Wilson’s dogged sleuthing over 18 months left her among the lucky ones. This fall, she received the email she had been waiting for: “Wanted to let you know the good news,” a detective wrote in September, attaching a screenshot from the Clark County, Nevada, inmate portal. 

Lashawnda Scales was behind bars, held on forgery charges related to a scheme to live a life of luxury by stealing the identity of unsuspecting victims

Targeting Wilson’s niece was her biggest mistake.