THE plague of bin-diving - trawling through rubbish in search of personal details to be used in stolen identity frauds - is thought to have reached Exeter.
A suspected fraudster has been spotted leaving a trail of slashed rubbish bags in his wake as he goes on dawn searches for credit card and bank account details.
The fastest growing fraud, with over 53,000 cases in 2000, involves criminals getting hold of people's personal and financial details and using them to steal their identity. That is then used to obtain cash or goods.
Research shows that one in five domestic bins contains enough information to carry out a fraud.
This means that rubbish spilling out of split refuse sacks is not always due to foraging animals. A more sinister human element could be at work and now police are investigating sightings of a man sifting through refuse in Exeter.
The man, cycling alongside his dog as early as 6am, has been spotted by residents and shop owners in areas including St James and Sidwell Street.
Exeter police have alerted patrols to keep an eye out for the man, who has been operating for several months. In addition, householders are being warned to be wary about throwing out financial information.
City councillor Marcel Choules said: "The police are on to it. The people who do this are certainly not looking for food or anything like that."
Kim Kirk, owner of Kirk Radio in Sidwell Street, said: "I have seen him. He is in his 30s and has a dog and a bike. One day, I found the locks had been broken off on the bin at the back of our shop. He could be after credit card stubs."
Mike Thyer, a property landlord in Sidwell Street, said: "Someone comes round regularly on a bicycle and rips the bags open. He is here around 6am or 7am."
PC Roy Adams said: "We are advising people to be careful. The credit card slip does have your account number on it and people must take precautions."
A spokesman for the city council said: "We are aware that across the country it is a rising problem but are not aware of it here at the moment. People should be very vigilant about this and should not put out any information that people could get hold of and use for fraud. Also try not to put out bin bags too early."