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.
A Matter of Time
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.
The waste material, which is also extremely toxic, is often carelessly disposed of, dumped in rivers or other bodies of water or simply poured on the ground, sometimes even in the yard of the home where the lab is located, police say.
More Labs, More Fraud: No Coincidence
Use of the drug skyrocketed through the late 1990s, and while it seems to have leveled off in many places, it does not seem to be declining. In Washington, for example, the number of labs seized soared from 69 in 1996 to 1,310 in 2002, according to DEA figures. In Tennessee, the number went from two in 1996 to 555 in 2002. Authorities in Indiana found just 10 labs in 1996 but busted 871 in 2002.
In the same period there appears to have been a rise in the incidence of fraud and identity theft. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission received 214,905 reports of identity theft and 301,835 of fraud, up from 86,212 ID theft and 134,131 fraud complaints in 2001. Estimated losses to consumers from these crimes last year totaled $400 million, according to FTC figures.
Many of those people worst hit by identity theft will be trying to overcome the effects on their credit rating for years, experts say.
The phenomenon of meth users turning to identity theft has only recently begun to be noticed, but law enforcement officials say it could add momentum to what was already a growing crime.
Damon Mosler, the chief of the narcotics division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, said when he first started noticing that people being prosecuted on drug charges — particularly meth — were also facing charges related to identity theft, he thought it might be a coincidence.
But the numbers changed his mind. More than half the fraud and forgery cases prosecuted in San Diego County are linked to methamphetamine users, he said.
Most of the cases are "bad paper," he said, meaning forgeries when people have either stolen unused checks that were being sent to an unsuspecting victim and are using them, or have stolen someone's outgoing mail to get ahold of a check being used to pay a bill, and printed out their own checks on that person's account.
One recent raid turned up a more sophisticated operation being run by meth users, Mosler said. Police found a computer with identity information from 45 different people that was being used to create driver's licenses that could then be used to get credit cards.
"The driver's licenses they were making looked pretty good, too, he said. "They were getting close."
"Crank" has become such a serious problem in how it is related to other crimes — much worse than marijuana, for example — because it is highly addictive, law enforcement officials said. People can become addicted after using the drug just two or three times, they say.
"If you smoke marijuana and you run out, you're probably not going to go out and steal a car or rob someone," said Reagan of the Spokane sheriff's office. "It's not going to be that important to you, but methamphetamine is different.
"We talk to ID thieves. They know they're going to get caught, but all they care about is feeding their arm," he said. "These aren't stupid people: these are addicted people. Tomorrow be damned, they want to feed their addiction today."
There are several factors that contribute to the turn to identity theft, police and prosecutors say. The mails are flooded with "pre-approved" credit card applications and documents bearing credit card or debit card account numbers. Much of that mail, along with receipts from credit and debit card purchases, winds up in homeowners' or businesses' trash, waiting to be plucked out.
Sophisticated computers and printers are available to help criminals create forged driver's licenses or other identification cards or checks.
The forged checks or fraudulently obtained credit cards are used to buy merchandise that can be turned into cash. Computers or other goods bought at one outlet of a chain store will be returned to another for money that in turn will be used to buy drugs.
The "high" that the drug creates is particularly conducive to identity theft, too, some police say. The effects last up to 12 hours and users become extremely detail-oriented — several police referred to them as "tweakers." They also don't mind the filth they face "dumpster diving" for discarded documents.
"It's easier than committing property crimes," Mosler said.