Archive for Thursday, August 5, 2004

A case of stolen identity

Police struggling to keep up with ID theft, related crimes

August 5, 2004

A radio inside Susan Wernicke's office is tuned to a classic rock station. As the Shawnee crime analyst searches her database for statistics, Jim Morrison croons the lyrics 'Hello, I love you' over the speakers.

"We're seeing more and more of them," said Wernicke while handing over three pages of crime statistics from 2003 and 2004. The statistics indicate the Shawnee Police Department has taken nearly as many reports of fraud, forgery and identity theft in the first seven months of 2004 than it did all of last year.

Won't you tell me your name.

Whether people are giving away their name or not, criminals are learning everything they need to know about people they seek to defraud.

Most national databases agree that crimes associated with the fraudulent use of someone else's personal information -- name, Social Security number, credit card information and more -- are not only on the rise but are the fastest growing crimes in the United States.

Each year more than 500,000 people will fall victim to someone stealing their identity. The numbers are even higher when adding crimes not technically listed as identity theft -- stealing another person's checks for example -- but commonly associated with the crime.

The crimes are not just a problem in highly populated metropolitan areas, either. Police departments in Basehor, Bonner Springs, Edwardsville and Shawnee all reported higher instances of identity theft in their cities than ever before.

The Shawnee Police Department lumps fraud, forgery and identity theft into the same database and according to those statistics, thieves are preying on Shawnee residents just like anyone else.

In 2003, 124 cases were reported in Shawnee. Already this year, police have taken reports of 108 cases.

Interim Basehor police chief Martin Cigich said his department takes approximately 10 reports a year for identity theft and that officers are fielding more inquiries from residents who believe they've been victimized.

Leavenworth County Sheriff's Department undersheriff Dave Zoellner said deputies noticed two to three years ago that more people were reporting identity theft and that the caseload "is become more prevalent and increasing all the time."

Det. Ron Crouss handles white-collar crimes for the Bonner Springs Police Department and said identity theft and other financial crimes are on a "big time upswing" in his jurisdiction as well.

Det. Mike Saylor of the Shawnee police department investigates white-collar crimes and is a resident expert on identity theft.

He said the emergence of transactions over the Internet, improved computer and cellular telephone technologies and criminal cunning has made identity theft and related crimes an attractive prospect for those seeking to steal information from someone else.

"A lot of people are slicker in their thought process than we the victims," Saylor said.

The effects to victims may include monetary loss and damage to credit reports. While identity theft or like crimes may not happen to everyone, Saylor said everyone loses when the crimes become so rampant that companies start to lose money from the thefts.

"They're going to eat it as a fraud or a theft, which in turn affects all of us," he said.

Identity theft emerged as a new wave crime in the early 1990s.

Saylor said it began flourishing a few years ago as technology provided criminals with easier outlets to acquire information.

"I think they've been doing it for a long time, but it's probably become more rapid in the last 5 to 7 years," he said.

Inside his Shawnee office, Saylor has a large manila envelope containing identity theft, fraud and forgery related evidence. The contents include worthless checks, pint-sized computer components and false identification documents. The evidence points to just a handful of avenues criminals choose to facilitate thefts.

One particular criminal tried to purchase a $5,000 motorcycle from a local man. The criminal, who claimed he lived in Europe, sent the man a check for $11,200. The criminal then told the local man the check amount was a mistake and asked him to send a check back for the remaining $6,200.

Wisely, the man declined. The check turned out to be as worthless as the paper it was printed on. Saylor said the case is just one example of creative ways criminals can attempt to deceive their victims.

Other examples run the gamut from the well planned (planting devices on computers to record a person's usage) to the less precise, dumpster diving (exactly what it sounds like), and phishing (criminals impersonating a bank employee over the telephone attempting to glom bank information).

Individuals aren't the only ones having difficulty adjusting to the crimes.

Saylor said Kansas statutes passed into law in 1998 provide a loose interpretation of identity theft and that the judges tend to define the crime differently.

"It doesn't cover several areas you or I would consider identity theft," Saylor said.

"There are a lot of identity theft type cases that may not fall under the statutes."

Saylor said the crimes present jurisdictional problems for law enforcement agencies because often times the criminal and victim live in different states.

"That's a big problem," he said. "Where do you charge them? You can't charge them in both places for the same thing because of double jeopardy."

Crous agreed.

"Most of these people don't limit themselves to one city," the Bonner Springs detective said. "Once they get a hold of the information, they're hitting every city they can. They're hitting four or five stores in a day's time."

Saylor said often law enforcement agencies are resigned to ceasing action on the victim's account rather than tracking down the perpetrator.

"In most cases it's a matter of stopping the action further. Once that account becomes a little bit difficult to access, (the thief) is going to throw it away and start on something new."

However, be forewarned wannabe criminals -- identity theft isn't an invitation to steal. Arrests are made all the time and sentencing for convictions often falls under felony guidelines.

"If you're convicted of it, you're probably going to do some time in jail," Saylor said.

Some universal safeguards to protect consumers against identity theft or related crimes include:

  • Don't use your Social Security number as your driver's license number.
  • Don't leave outgoing mail in your residential mailbox.
  • Give no information over the telephone to someone who has contacted you.
  • Shred all documents at home including junk mail.
  • Check your credit history regularly.

A good source for a complete list of tips against identity theft is the Federal Trade Commission Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Saylor said regardless of precautions, people may still be victimized.

However, the quicker people learn of a problem and contact the appropriate agencies, the easier the problem is to correct.

"It's one thing to be the victim for a couple of thousand dollars," he said. "It's another when it gets to the six digits."

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