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Gray Areas Hinder Web Fraud Probes

Limits on Resources, Time, Jurisdiction Often Leave Investigations in Limbo


If you get scammed buying or selling something on the Internet, finding a law enforcement agency to investigate your case might prove difficult.

Many local police departments don't have the time or resources to probe Internet fraud cases, which often involve time-consuming work that crosses state lines. The FBI, which has jurisdiction over all Internet crimes, typically pursues only cases involving large sums of money or large numbers of victims.

"It's way too major for me and way too minor for the FBI," concedes Buena Park Police Det. Kris Bisbing, who regularly receives calls from victims seeking help.

Bisbing and other local detectives try to help victims when they can. But many cases receive little attention, especially those involving interstate crimes.

"My boundaries are technically in Irvine," said Sgt. Rick Hanfield of the Irvine Police Department. The victims and criminal "may be in Utah, Canada or maybe even Hong Kong. Is someone realistically going to get satisfaction? Probably not."

The FBI is equally selective in investigating complaints. If a consumer meets someone in a chat room and gets cheated on a bicycle, "that's a one-shot transaction. We would not handle that," said Rick Wade, an assistant special FBI agent in charge of investigating white-collar crime in Los Angeles.

"What's handled is often when there's a pattern," he said.

Still, officials stress that Internet crime victims should report any problems, even if the odds of catching the criminal are low. Investigators need information on as many scams as possible to help determine patterns and close loopholes that make certain crimes possible.

Within six months, the FBI and the nonprofit National White Collar Crime Center are hoping to open the new Internet Fraud Center in West Virginia to take in complaints via phone and the Internet. Although not all complaints will be fully investigated, the center's database is expected to help investigators make links among various crimes.

Federal and local officials said they receive numerous complaints from people who send money for goods bought on the Internet but never receive them. Sometimes, many consumers get taken by the same culprit.

"You may have only lost one Beanie Baby, but if there's 50,000 people who lost one Beanie Baby, that's very big-time," the FBI's Wade said.

Although local police officials can't handle every call for help, they do report some success in cracking cases.

Bisbing, the Buena Park detective, received calls from people in Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Nebraska and California who ordered items listed on a Web page with a Buena Park post office box address.

They sent in their money orders but never received their Beanie Babies, Furbies, Disney posters or copies of "Star Wars" films. Bisbing traced the post office box to an 18-year-old Burbank man, who eventually returned the money.

Most times, however, Internet criminals are more savvy.

"This is one time I could do something. But most of the time, it will be beyond my ability to handle it," Bisbing said.

Newport Beach Police Det. Jerry Lowe said he cracked one case almost by coincidence. In this swindle, the buyer and not the seller committed the crime.

Authorities accuse a 28-year-old Beverly Hills man of ordering items on eBay, the Internet's most popular auction site. He won bids for Rolex watches and at least one laptop, according to police.

The items were delivered to a Newport Beach mailbox service, where drivers were handed what turned out to be fake cashier's checks. Lowe happened to be at the site when the suspect walked in, and he was arrested.

Lowe said he can do the most good if the suspect has ties to Newport Beach.

"If the jurisdiction falls within New York or Hong Kong, I can't travel to New York," he said.

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