Identity theft is soaring in California, and street gangs are angling for a piece of the action.
Recent cases point to an interest in identity fraud by organizations as diverse as a Long Beach chapter of the Crips, the Armenian Power gang and the prison-based Mexican Mafia, according to law enforcement officials and fraud experts.
The trend among criminals better known for violence and drug trafficking goes against type. Many people think of identity thieves as computer hackers of the sort named last week in a major international case centering on retailers including TJ Maxx, whose customers' credit cards were scooped up during electronic intrusions.
But the basics of the crime are so easy to master -- and the tools for mass fraud so widely available -- that it has become attractive to traditional street gangs. Their role, which contributed to a 31% increase in identity-theft complaints to local authorities last year, is highlighted in a study of California identity fraud scheduled for release today by Identity Theft 911, a consulting firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Citing previously released figures from the Federal Trade Commission, the study estimates that 1.5 million Californians became identity theft victims in 2007, making the state's per-capita rate second only to that of Arizona.
Credit card fraud is the most common form of the crime in California, as it is in the nation.
Employment-related fraud is No. 2. In California, that category tops the U.S. rate, which the study attributes to undocumented workers using stolen Social Security numbers. The value of that nine-digit identifier has risen, because new laws are making it riskier for businesses to employ illegal immigrants.
Social Security numbers are at the heart of an ongoing investigation by the state Department of Consumer Affairs, spokesman Russ Heimerich said Monday.
According to Heimerich, the agency is probing a former employee, Rachel Dumbrique. In June, on her last day at the agency, the personnel specialist sent the names and Social Security numbers of 5,000 people on the state payroll to a personal e-mail account on Yahoo.
Dumbrique told the department that she hadn't realized the Social Security numbers were included in the file. But investigators are alarmed because she is married to Edward Dumbrique, an imprisoned member of the Mexican Mafia.
Dumbrique, who now works at the California Department of Mental Health, couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
Meanwhile, a ring connected to the Long Beach Insane Crips used a check-cashing scheme to steal more than $88,000 from multiple branches of the Washington Mutual thrift, said Kathryn Showers, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County.
In a series of associated criminal cases, investigators said 15 conspirators used counterfeit checks and money orders and persuaded people to deposit the bogus documents and then withdraw cash. A similar plot took in more than $150,000 from Bank of America branches in Northridge, Granada Hills and elsewhere, court filings show.
Searches in March 2006 turned up guns, computers and paperwork for building false identities, and Showers said the group paid tellers to approve withdrawals they shouldn't have. Several ringleaders have pleaded guilty.
"Theft of identifying information is going on at all kinds of levels," Showers said in an interview. "Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Southern California."
A May criminal case against a group affiliated with Armenian Power accuses five people of raiding the accounts of people who merely used the wrong ATMs at the wrong times.
This year, the men put false keypads on top of legitimate ATMs to record passwords and later withdrew money from 120 accounts, according to the complaint.
Targeted ATMs included Wells Fargo machines at a Vons supermarket on Reseda Boulevard, a Ralphs on North La Brea Avenue and a Stater Bros. in Walnut.
Some of the men face as many as 90 criminal charges.
Gang members sometimes recruit corporate insiders, said Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego nonprofit group that helped with the study. They visit restaurants and other hangouts, listening for people complaining about money troubles, then offer cash in exchange for information they can use in identity theft.
She said gang members need to do such things because they often have trouble finding a job and having the opportunity to orchestrate an inside job on their own. "It can be hard to get hired when there's a swastika tattooed on your head," Foley said.