If you think you're safe from identity theft because you shred documents before disposing of them, Pierce County, Wash., prosecutors have some people you should meet.
They're methamphetamine addicts, and in Pierce County, as in many other areas across the West, law enforcement officials are finding more and more evidence of what they believe is a link between meth use and identity theft.
"The thing that is somewhat unique to identity theft is that it requires an almost absurd amount of hours and focus, which methamphetamine users have in abundance," said Mark Lindquist, team chief of the drug unit with the county prosecuting attorney. "We've seen methamphetamine users putting together papers that have been through shredders."
The link has been found in as much as 90 percent of the identity theft cases being prosecuted in the county, he said.
More than a year ago, ABCNEWS.com spoke with numerous local law enforcement officials who were already seeing the link, but so far there is only anecdotal evidence. Federal lawmakers are now calling for a study to determine the extent of the problem.
A Wave of Identity Theft
Earlier this spring, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive national investigation of the connection between the two crimes.
"Having nationwide information and a better understanding of the growing problem will help lay the groundwork for a comprehensive solution," Cantwell said at a news conference in Seattle. "If we're going to be successful in curbing these crimes and keeping communities safe, we need a strategy to attack them at their roots."
Recently, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signed on to Cantwell's bill.
Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in meth use. More than 9,300 meth labs were seized across the country in 2004, a 500 percent increase since 1996. That boom has coincided with a sharp rise in the incidence of identity theft. There were 214,905 reports received by the Federal Trade Commission in 2003, up from 86,212 in 2001.
In many cases, it seems, the two crimes go hand in hand.
For example, in Colorado, 16 people have been indicted on charges, including racketeering, computer crime and motor vehicle theft, following a seven-month investigation into alleged identity theft that prosecutors say was fueled by the suspects' hunger for methamphetamines.
The indictment, handed up by a Denver grand jury, accuses a core group of five people of stealing money, merchandise, checkbooks, credit cards, guns, cars and other items. Eleven other people are also believed to be involved.
The proceeds from the crimes were used to buy methamphetamine, according to the Denver District Attorney's Office.
"The amount of crime fueled by illegal drug use, especially meth right now, has a huge impact on everyone in the metro area," District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said. "We all benefit when a criminal enterprise like this is shut down."
The indictment alleges that Kasey Blake Gruver, 30; Jennifer Wilson, 24; Mark Hazlett, 39; Daniel Campbell, 27; and Guadalupe "Jay" Garcia, 26; were a "clearinghouse" for stolen merchandise and stolen personal and financial information.
That is the way identity theft fits into the criminal world created by meth, police say. Meth addicts will steal mail, "Dumpster dive," or even burglarize homes or businesses to gather documents that can be used to steal identities. They will then either use them to commit identity fraud themselves to raise money to support their habits, or trade the information to others for meth.
Doubts About a Link
Despite the certainty expressed by police and prosecutors, officials at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the crime-fighting arm of the U.S. Postal Service, say the kind of crime associated with meth addicts has a small impact overall on identity theft.
An FTC study released earlier this year found only 4 percent of identity theft linked to mail theft, said Paul Krenn, a spokesman with the USPIS, though he noted that there is a higher incidence of mail theft in regions where meth use is high.
What has driven the boom in identity theft, he said, is the large-scale thefts of the personal data of hundreds of thousands of people from companies such as Lexis-Nexis, Bank of America, Commerce Bank, PNC Bank and Wachovia Bank.
But he did agree that the issue should be studied further.
Getting the Resources
For law enforcement officials, a potential federal study is seen as a boon, but not because they expect it will tell them anything new about meth use and identity theft.
Laura Birkmeyer, executive assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, said the information could help in many ways, such as providing an impetus for investigators to coordinate better and to help design programs to prevent convicts from reoffending.
Lindquist said a federal study will also help police get the funding they need for their fight.
"We already know they go together, but what will help us is when it comes to getting resources committed to the problem," Lindquist said.
Anything that will help police put an end to the scourge of meth abuse is welcome, he said, because the drug has a negative impact on communities in so many ways.
Because of the toxic mix of chemicals used in meth labs, locations where they have been operated often have to be treated like toxic waste sites. One farm in Pierce County will be unusable for at least 10 years because a meth lab was run there, Lindquist said.
And law enforcement and health officials have recently pointed to another disturbing trend -- the damage done to children living near meth labs.
"Mom gets addicted to meth and she brings in the dirtbag cook and he poisons the child by producing meth in the home," Lindquist said. "The thing about meth is, it is such a scourge I don't know anyone who has any knowledge about it who doesn't think it is the worst drug they've ever seen."