Give a man an inch and he thinks he’s a ruler. Keep ignoring identity thieves and you end up with a generation of Super Thieves that are skilled, cocky and almost impossible to catch.
I’ve worked with thousands of victims of identity theft, and hundreds of police departments and other law enforcement agencies. The biggest complaint I hear from victims is not about thieves but about law enforcement.
As most victims of identity theft will tell you, law enforcement are typically not very sympathetic to the crime or its victims. I’ll occasionally come across a cop who really gets it – that identity theft can be a life-altering crime and that even if there’s not much law enforcement can do to investigate, at least a sympathetic ear can go a long way.
But such cops are as rare as bull’s milk. Things got so bad in California that the legislature actually had to introduce legislation requiring law enforcement to take reports from identity theft victims, because so many police and sheriff’s departments simply refused to.
And it’s that indifference that has helped to create Super Thieves. Super Thieves are everywhere, in almost every community. More than four years ago, law enforcement in the city of Oakland California admitted to me that they had identified more than two dozen local identity gangs who operated in the city with almost complete impunity. And while most of these gangs started at the very bottom, they didn’t linger there long.
Super Thieves are professional identity thieves who started out as anything but. They are usually criminals to start with, though a little petty, and often as a result of drug dependence. Their venture into the business of identity theft usually starts with the most basic of ground-floor crimes, like mail theft, check forgery, or dumpster diving. When they realize (a) it’s very easy, (b) it’s very lucrative, and (c) nobody seems to be chasing them, they get confident and even a little cocky. It’s simply human nature. If you commit a crime that’s easy and pays well, and realize that not only are cops not looking for you but they don’t really seem to care at all about what you’re doing, you’re just going to keep doing it.
So they do keep doing it and keep getting better at it. They also begin to socialize with other crooks that have other skills to share and they learn from them. They get better at mail theft, for example, often focusing on communal mail boxes in office parks where they know they’ll get a treasure trove of information in one hit. There’s a bridge in Sonoma county that’s know to law enforcement for the amount of mail that ends up in the river below. Thieves steal so much mail, they have to dump the stuff that’s not worth enough. And they keep dumping it off the same bridge, a modern day version of dumping the body.
These thieves also learn about forgery, about where to buy or augment stolen personal information, about how the credit and banking systems work. And they learn to distance themselves from both the crime and the lower level crooks who could easily turn on them and turn them in.
One of the Super Thieves I’ve met in my travels is now a prison guard in Utah, having left the federal witness protection program where she was hiding from a gang that had put a hit on her. Like many Super Thieves, she started out small and usually to feed her drug habit.
As she got better, she also became involved with a number of gangs, and eventually dated a gang leader who just happened to be one of the nation’s top forgers. And who’s now serving a lengthy prison sentence because of her testimony. Hence the hit.
Law enforcement finally caught up with her when a thief who stole mail for her led police to an identity theft factory she had been running out of a Las Vegas motel. She’s always been very open about her life and her crime, and made a point of pointing out that the main reason for her success as the Ma Baker of identity theft was because the cops didn’t care.
They only took notice when she got very big and very good, but by that time she had nearly a decade of crimes behind her, thousands of victims, and millions in earnings. Most of which went to the gangs she worked for.
Another thief I spoke to said that he tries to keep as much of his stolen information as possible on a laptop, either encrypted or in a hidden file. He claims that when cops arrest identity thieves, what they hate most is the amount of paperwork that can be involved. So they’ll typically charge the lowest crime which is often just possession of drug paraphernalia or stolen mail, and end the investigation there. He says that if there’s a laptop involved, law enforcement have such few skills in that area they rarely even look at it. If they do ask, his response is that the battery died and he can’t power it up. And they leave it at that.
Why don’t cops seem to care about identity theft?
Most cops don’t think identity theft is a serious crime. They assume that the victim is not on the hook for any financial losses so they really have nothing to complain about. What they don’t understand is that the biggest cost for victims is the long term emotional cost.
In one case I worked, where family members had fleeced their elderly mother out of more than $250,000, the local police refused to even take a report because they considered it “a family dispute.” When we tried to report it as elder financial abuse, because the victim was 87, again we were ignored. The victim eventually lost her home and all her savings.
Most cops are already overworked and over stressed. Because of budget cuts and manpower shortages, they have to focus their dwindling resources on responding to the most urgent and violent crimes. They don’t have the time or patience to hold the hands of victims worried about a ding on their credit score.
There are just too many identity theft cases, they’re too complex to investigate, and there’s rarely a positive outcome. If the thieves are actually identified, there’s rarely enough evidence to prosecute. If there is enough evidence, most prosecutors will only take on the biggest cases. Allowing most identity thieves to walk free.
There are complex jurisdictional issues and ground rules. Identity theft is usually a multi-jurisdictional crime. The victim lives in one city, the thief in another. The information is stolen in yet another city and perhaps used to commit fraud in dozens of other cities. So who has jurisdiction? And how are you going to get the cooperation of the over-worked officers in all of those different jurisdictions?
Cops don’t really get cybercrime either. Most police chiefs I know, and I know hundreds, are technically challenged and barely know how to use their own email. I can remember the enormous fuss in 2011 when the San Francisco Police Department proudly unveiled its latest technology tool that would be available to all its officers – email.
So you can imagine what other planet they think cybercrime is from. And cybercrime and identity theft are now so closely related, it just creates another major hurdle for law enforcement to cross.
We have to find a way to bring law enforcement back into the fight. Or simply find other ways to fight. Otherwise every thief will quickly graduate to become a Super Thief and the fragile relationship between victims and law enforcement will only deteriorate further.