12/01/2007

Rash of ID thefts overwhelms Calif. police

As technology has advanced, so has the criminal element, capable of stealing sensitive financial information with a touch of a hand-held PDA or any device with an Internet connection.

By Malaika Fraley
Inside Bay Area

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif. — When a Contra Costa resident discovered his credit card was being used by someone in New York, sheriff's investigators passed the case on to authorities there, under a California law that says where the crime occurs dictates jurisdiction.

The law in New York is the opposite -- the case is investigated where the victim lives -- and Contra Costa investigators were left with no way to help the victim.

Chalk up yet another frustration for local detectives investigating fraud and identity theft in the new millennium.

Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the country, with 8.3 million Americans victimized in 2005, according to a survey released this week by the Federal Trade Commission. The numbers come as no surprise to local investigators, who report a myriad of challenges in investigating identify theft as the number of victims grows exponentially.

"It was just a few years ago we were saying this was the wave of the future," said Contra Costa Sheriff's Capt. Daniel Terry, who oversees the high-tech crimes unit. "Well, that wave is not only here, it's passed us, and we're doing everything we can to catch up."

As technology has advanced, so has the criminal element, capable of stealing sensitive financial information with a touch of a hand-held PDA or any device with an Internet connection. Tying a faceless perpetrator with an unregistered computer thousands of miles away can be impossible. With new reports coming in every day, detectives said they must pick and choose to take on cases with the strongest leads and likelihood of being solved. "I have one investigator assigned to identity theft crimes. Realistically, I could use 10," Walnut Creek police Lt. Steve Skinner said. "We do have some luck here and there. But sometimes we'll have a crime originating out of Russia. I can't afford to send a detective to Russia. It's crazy -- there's no boundaries anymore."

Sheriff's Detective Ron Koci, one of two investigators who have handled nearly 500 high-tech and identity theft crimes so far this year, said with identity theft crimes involving technology, he starts his investigation by combing the victim's computer or other Internet-able equipment that was compromised. From there, he pinpoints how information was stolen, whether by virus or illegal software designed to infiltrate. Either could corrupt a computer through e-mail or Web site.

Once the method is determined, he tracks IP addresses to trace the crime to a computer in a particular country or region.

But even when the exact computer used is identified, investigators face challenges.

The person registered to the device is not a clear suspect, given the various ways people can access computer systems. Some countries won't cooperate with American investigators, except sometimes in cases with substantial financial loss. When investigators face those kinds of road blocks, they have to tell the victim their hands are tied, Koci said.

"It's really hard to put someone's fingers on the computer. Obviously it's frustrating," Koci said. "Even though we deal with a lot of cases, each person's case is important to us. Being a victim is very traumatic."

Concord police Lt. Dave Chilimidos, whose financial crimes unit investigated 162 identity theft cases in 2006, said the identity theft epidemic comes at a time when law enforcement nationwide is struggling to keeps its ranks filled.

"If you add more detectives, that's fewer officers on the streets for patrol and emergency response," Chilimidos said. "I see it as a huge issue because the long-term impact on a victim can be profound and long-lasting. It's not just the financial hit, it can impact jobs, your ability to buy a home. It can even lead to you being arrested and incur criminal liability from acts of another who used your name and compromised your identity."

To support local investigators, the state Department of Justice in 2000 formed the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force to provide training to detectives in investigating identity theft and other crimes involving high technology.

Comprising officers and prosecutors from agencies in five Bay Area counties, the task force has been successful in solving multijurisdictional cases involving lots of victims.

In one recent case, the task force linked numerous instances of credit card fraud and identity theft involving many victims in numerous Bay Area counties to one woman. Richmond resident Tynesha West now faces five years in prison for the crime she began by posing as a school volunteer stealing purses from teachers at elementary schools throughout the region.

Terry said law enforcement could use more support in the area of high-tech training, which requires a significant amount of raw dollars not covered by grants.

"The learning curve is really beyond what anyone has grasped until now," Terry said. "It's a huge investment for law enforcement to make staff knowledgeable enough to testify as an expert in court.

"One of the solutions, in my eyes, is to get corporate enterprise into the foxhole with law enforcement. They have the resources and the financial means."

Contra Costa County would also benefit from an expanded forensic lab where computers and other electronics seized during criminal investigations could be stored and analyzed, Terry said.

Walnut Creek police Detective Jeff Slater said it's important to gather as much information as possible about what occurred before making a report to investigators, who don't have the same access to the victim's financial records.

"Don't hesitate to call police for assistance, but get the transaction times and locations from your bank and credit card company beforehand to get the ball rolling," Slater said. "If you call us with no information, it's difficult for us to investigate."

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