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.
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."