When Salem, Ore., police tracked down a gang that had been burglarizing businesses, they were surprised to learn the crooks weren't trying to sell the computers they'd stolen. They were ransacking the hard drives to steal identities.
The gang members, according to Salem police, were methamphetamine addicts, looking to use the stolen identities to commit fraud to support their habits.
In retrospect, the investigators shouldn't have been surprised at all, though, because what they found is part of a growing trend that police across the West have recognized.
Identity theft and other forms of fraud are attractive because they are much less risky than the other kinds of crimes addicts have traditionally turned to to get money. And if they get caught, perpetrators can expect to serve much shorter sentences for fraud than for crimes such as burglary or robbery.
"There definitely is a link between meth use and identity theft, at least in what we see," said Salem Police Chief Walt Myers, who was recently appointed by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski to direct statewide efforts to fight crystal meth use.
Myers is not alone. Police up and down the West Coast, from Olympia, Wash., to San Diego are making the connection, as "crank" has increased its hold on communities.
"It's probably become our largest crime problem in Spokane County — everyone we arrest seems to have coke or more often methamphetamine powder," said Cpl. Dave Reagan of the Spokane, Wash., County Sheriff's Office. "And ID theft seems to be the new big thing for them [methamphetamine users]. It seems to be more profitable, because you can actually recoup 100 percent of whatever you're trying to turn around."
For example, a Spokane woman named Stacey Lee Fetch recently pleaded guilty to 15 counts of forgery, two counts of second-degree identity theft — and four counts of possession of methamphetamines. She had written $45,000 worth of fraudulent checks in three months to feed her crank addiction, police said.
Officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and statewide agencies in other parts of the country said they have not noticed the connection that's being seen on the West Coast, but police in Washington, Oregon and California say they will.
"If some other states aren't seeing it yet, it's because they're not looking for it," said Lt. Brad Watkins of the Thurston County, Wash., Sheriff's Office. "They will."
Police across the country have recognized the many other ways that meth has had an impact on their communities, beyond the ravages on the addicts themselves.
It's not just the traditional drug-related crime, such as muggings, burglaries and car thefts, they say.
Nearly all of the meth used in the United States is produced here, "cooked" either in large operations — many of them run by gangs or Mexican nationals, police say — or in home labs, set up in people's kitchens or bathrooms. The process produces so much toxic fumes that homes where numerous batches have been made become uninhabitable, police say.
The danger to children living in homes with labs is so great that Washington State has added child endangerment to the potential charges that a person caught with a lab could face. Additional charges could also be filed if a lab is in a school zone, which according to state law also includes any location within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.