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Welcome to the Wild West: The Current State of Law Enforcement and Identity Theft

by Neal O'Farrell on January 17th, 2011

Since the launch of the Identity Theft Council, one of the questions I’m asked most often is Why – Why the Identity Theft Council? Is it really a need? If most victims don’t actually lose any money, are they really victims?

When I get asked questions like these, I think back to a pair of cases from just last year.

At the end of the summer, I started helping an eighty-year-old woman who lost nearly $200,000 to a couple of identity thieves who turned out to be her kids. She lives in one of California’s largest cities (1 million+ residents) and was worried that her case might simply fall through the cracks and leave her helpless.

She was right.

I asked her if she had filed a police report, and she said she had tried. She filed a complaint and was told that a police report would be mailed to her. Two months later, she still had not received a copy of her police report and can do little to defend herself.

When I contacted the police department, I was directed to an investigating officer whose voicemail box was always full and could not accept any new messages. I contacted the District Attorney’s elder abuse division and was told that they’re not taking any more cases, no matter how tragic. A few days later I sat down with the officer in charge of the city’s fraud task force and he made a stunning admission: The city has one officer investigating all kinds of frauds, and no-one dedicated to investigating identity theft.

One officer, responsible for a city of one million.

Even more startling, the officer confided that there are dozens of known identity theft gangs operating all kinds of scams in the city without any fear of being chased, caught, or prosecuted. “When it comes to identity theft,” he said “It’s like the wild west out here.”

His experience is not unique. Most police departments I work with admit off the record that they have abandoned the fight against identity theft and for a variety of reasons:

  • They don’t have the resources.
  • They’re losing officers to budget cuts.
  • The officers they still have know little about identity theft or how to investigate it.
  • And perhaps the most troubling: many police departments still view identity theft as more of an inconvenience or a civil matter than a criminal act.

Just around October, I started helping another victim—in the same city—of a particularly troubling case of cyber stalking. Someone has been posting vile sexual comments in chat rooms around the world, posing as the victim. The poster is including the victim’s real name, home address, and phone number, and inviting readers to “visit” her.

The victim is now living in fear, has left her home to move in with friends, and changed her phone number. Now she’s thinking of changing her name. Just like the eighty-year-old victim, this victim has no-one to turn to. Law enforcement has refused to investigate, and local prosecutors are unlikely to take up the case as the county recently had to lay off more than a dozen attorneys and investigators. This lack of support is almost universal, and in most cases it comes down simply to a lack of resources.

The Identity Theft Council is more than just a group of concerned citizens coming together to work together against this growing crime. The ITC is young people talking to their friends, families, and peers about the simple and obvious things they need to do to combat identity theft. The ITC is about seniors reaching out to seniors, helping to educate them of the perils of identity theft. The ITC is the community taking a stand and working together to help law enforcement and those affected by identity theft to recover from such a horrible crime.

So when you ask me “Why?” now you know my answer.

Saddle up, Regulators. Time to clean up this town.

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