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July 06, 2004

ARCHIVE: Identity Theft


Wendell Black

Wendell Black guards counterfeit cash as part of a display related to organized crime and identity theft.

A high tech federal task force aimed at investigating identity fraud opened up a window into its headquarters today announcing that it has already charged 41 individuals with identity crimes in the less than two months it's operated. KNPR's Ky Plaskon was there.


PLASKON: Wendell Black flips through the pile of counterfeit cash he's guarding at the Alan Bible Federal Building. Nearby is also a table of credit cards, IDs and the machines to make them at home. It's a display for reports of the booty seized in one of the fastest growing criminal activity today - identity theft. 10 million Americans were victims of it last year, more than 5,000 in Nevada, putting this state second in the nation for identity theft cases according to a Federal Trade Commission report in January. Sheriff Bill Young explains that law enforcement has only recently recognized that crime is moving from the streets to the electronic world and cops need to follow.

YOUNG: Sitting at a computer isn't the thing most police aspire to do when they strap on a gun and badge and join a police force and this is a very, very different kind of law enforcement. And our skills need to be developed.

PLASKON: He says financial institutions aren't helping either, willing to write off a 20-30 percent loss every year to fraudulent charges as a result of identity theft.

YOUNG: They are willing to take that risk and write that loss off, it is very very difficult as long as they are making a profit for us to convince them that they really need to tighten up and restrict their use of electronic services.

PLASKON: Officials compliment recent pubic education efforts by financial institutions to make the public aware of identity theft, such as commercials by Citibank. Citibank didn't return phone calls from KNPR by deadline. Law enforcement officials say the public can protect themselves by putting their pictures on credit cards, not leaving mail out at night and shredding documents to name a few.

MASTOW: If you are not doing that you are riding for a fall as we say, it is probably just a matter of time until someone gets around to getting you information and you too will become a victim.

PLASKON: Paul Mastow is Acting Agent in Charge for the Secret Service Las Vegas Field Office. He is part of the valley's most recent effort to catch identity thieves. In April this year the Metropolitan Police Department teamed up with North Las Vegas and Henderson Police, Postal Investigators, U-S Attorney and Clark County District Attorney's office and the Secret Service to create SWIFT the Southwestern Identity Theft and Fraud Task Force. In just the first two months of operation it's efforts have resulted in charging 41 individuals with identity-theft related activities, from stealing credit card numbers out of hotel databases to a bank teller selling personal identification. Mastow knows the identity criminal's mind.

MASTOW: They are very clever, they are very computer literate and if only they had put their energies into something positive in life they probably could have been very successful.

PLASKON: But he says that many have a history of methamphetamine use and manufacturing.

MASTOW: As we know that increases a sense of paranoia in people and we will go into these houses when we make arrests and the toaster oven and the computer and the TV, they are completely torn apart. These folks have a tendency to stay up all night, they become paranoid that the government is listening in on what they are saying or doing and they disassemble every piece of electronic material that is in their house, it is quite common. The first time we saw that we couldn't quite figure it out.

PLASKON: But catching someone who is using another's identity isn't easy according to Karyn Kenny, Assistant U-S Attorney prosecuting the case. Almost all of those who the task force catches have prior criminal records that make their fingerprints easy to identify when they cash fraudulent checks. These criminals learn the identity theft process when they meet in prison Kenny says. One person steals the mail for instance, another prints the checks or credit cards and another will use the check or card at a bank or casino to complete the identity theft. While some of the crimes may seem petty, charging calls to a stolen phone number for instance, that's the focus of the task force, less organized criminals. If they aren't caught early they could become more sophisticated or as Kenny says eventually butt heads with other identity thieves.

KENNY: Of course, like anything else whenever a criminal mind looks at an area that is new and that is growing and is very profitable it is just a matter of time before the people who are not that organized are moved out of the way.

PLASKON: In fact in May, 21 people were charged with identity theft in Las Vegas. Allegedly members of two organized criminal organizations that worked in teams throughout the U-S to steal credit cards from parked cars near trail heads, gyms at fitness centers and use cameras at ATMs to record card numbers. Then they would use runners to make purchases in Las Vegas. The U-S attorney alleges they protected the identity theft business through intimidation, threats of violence, assaults and murder.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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