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Police Departments See Increase in Identity Theft Cases

Crime: Consumer advocates praise a new state law that requires law enforcement agencies to take reports on the crimes, no matter where they occurred.


Until recently, identity theft was the kind of case some police detectives immediately shunted to that dusty file cabinet in the back of the squad room.

The crimes--which involve crooks who assume other people's identity for the purpose of accessing credit cards and looting bank accounts--are among the hardest cases to crack. They often involve complex computer work and tracking suspects who could be living anywhere in the world.

But as identity theft reaches what federal officials call alarming levels, a new law gives police in California no choice but to take the cases more seriously.

The law, which took effect in January, requires all state law enforcement agencies to take reports of identity theft--regardless of where the crimes take place. This is important, consumer advocates and others said, because the criminals can commit the fraud hundreds of miles from where the victim lives.

"There was a lot of confusion and frustration. People didn't know where to turn," said former Assemblywoman Susan Davis, who wrote the bill and now serves in Congress. "I would hope that it has clarified [to] the police . . . their responsibility and provided a resource and recourse to the people."

Since the law took effect, police have reported significant increases in the number of identity theft cases. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, said the number of cases it handles has jumped twofold during the first four months of the year, with the department getting more than 100 new complaints a week.

"It's the buzzword," said Los Angeles police Det. Ed Whyte, who has 37 cases of identity theft on his desk. "And it's going to grow because it's an easy crime to commit and the yield is large."

Smaller police departments in places such as Anaheim and Irvine, which until now rarely dealt with the crime, now report anywhere from 30 to 60 new cases a month.

"It's a marked increase," said Newport Beach police Lt. John Klein, whose department is now recording about 20 reports of identity theft a month. The new law "makes it a lot easier because it allows victims to clean up their credit report."

Getting a police report number is crucial for identity fraud victims because financial institutions require it before they can start repairing their credit.

Despite the law, however, police said identity theft cases remain difficult to solve. Often suspects use the Internet to glean financial information about victims and then use their credit cards to make purchases and assume their identity.

Tracing the scams back is difficult because "you're looking for a person who is under someone else's name," said Irvine police Sgt. Rick Handfield. "It's gotten so bad that in some cases, we've had people ticketed, arrested and served their time, then we find out" they were using someone else's identity.

Fullerton police Det. Pat Martin understands identity theft more than most. Not only does he investigate it, he was once a victim. Martin said police are beginning to focus more attention on the crime.

In the past, "some police departments were not taking reports because they wouldn't know how to investigate the crime thousands of miles away," said Martin, who has five cases on his desk. "These are the toughest cases to solve."

Martin said working the identity fraud beat has its share of dead-ends and frustrations. But he said sometimes the right pieces just come together, as in one of his first cases a few years ago.

A Fullerton woman came to the Police Department with a 14-inch-thick stack of paperwork. Martin was assigned the case and discovered that an illegal immigrant had bought a fake driver's license and Social Security card in the name of the woman's husband, an electrician in his 50s who had lost his wallet.

The suspect had taken over the man's identity and bought five cars under his credit. He took unemployment payments and stole tax returns, Martin said. As a result, the victim had his wages garnisheed, was audited by the IRS and had liens placed on his home.

The suspect did his homework, Martin said, knowing what elementary school the victim attended and his previous addresses. Because neither the victim nor the suspect had fingerprints on file with law enforcement, even that identifier could not be used.

The break came when the suspect returned to a Fullerton car dealership to get a broken taillight fixed. At that moment, Martin walked in to interview the salesman who had sold the suspect the car under the victim's identity and credit. The suspect gave Martin all the correct information about who he claimed to be but stumbled when Martin asked him about his military history.

After a preliminary hearing, the man pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to three years in state prison. He is awaiting possible deportation.

"That was just luck," Martin said. "It could've been a nightmare to find that guy."

Consumer groups said the new law is an important step in helping victims.

"It's a common-sense measure," said Janine Brenner, consumer associate with California Public Interest Research Group, which backed Davis' bill. "This theft is happening everywhere and people can't just travel all over the map to file reports. There was a lot of jurisdictional problems."

The rise in such crimes also led to the introduction of two legislative bills.

Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) wrote a bill that would allow consumers one free credit report a year, waiving the $8 fee, and that would require credit agencies to notify consumers when someone checks their credit file. A bill by Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) would require credit agencies to list the phone number of the person making the inquiry, in addition to the name.

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