County Police Take A Bite Out of Fraud
Source: Washington Post
By Brigid Schulte
Date: May 23, 2003
Scott Wyne, a detective for the Montgomery County police fraud squad, is in the middle of investigating the biggest case of identity theft in the Washington region.
All around his Rockville office are software, computers and the machines to emboss holograms and official-looking Visa stickers on blank credit cards, all seized from the tony home of Francis E. Fletcher Jr. and Michele Cameron Fletcher, both of whom have been arrested on identity theft charges spanning at least two years.
But on a recent morning, as he continued to build a case against the Fletchers, tying one of their phony Visa cards directly to a purchase, Wyne's phone rang constantly.
A man from North Carolina called to complain that his credit card bill showed about $15,000 in purchases in Rockville, where he'd never been.
American Express called to complain that a Chinese restaurant down the street was "skimming" customer credit card numbers -- meaning someone was taking the identities that were swiped into the credit card machine and making purchases in Houston. "That's organized crime," Wyne said.
A major computer company reported some mail orders made with phony credit cards. The company wanted Wyne and other detectives to don the delivery uniforms they have hanging up in the office to make a "controlled delivery" and bust the perpetrator.
Sears reported gift certificates purchased with fake credit cards. A credit union called to say it was having counterfeit check problems. And this was a typical morning.
"It's just nonstop," Wyne said. "We must have a couple hundred cases every week."
Answering all the calls in the small Rockville office, where a photo of the Three Stooges hangs proudly on one of the walls, is Wyne, Detective Randy Bottenus and Sgt. Gary Renninger, who heads the unit. Fairfax County has 12 people in their fraud unit, Wyne groused.
"They're one of the unsung units on the police force," said officer Joyce Utter, a Montgomery police department spokeswoman. "A lot of the work they do, people never see. It's tedious. There's a lot of paperwork because everything has to be absolutely in line before they can go to court."
But as the cases of identity theft grow, some officials say the small fraud unit may be overwhelmed.
Wyne is a seasoned detective who formerly worked undercover narcotics cases. In the past three years, he and others say, the cases of identity theft have exploded. The computer makes it easy: The machinery is easily and legally available on the Internet, and software programs to design photographs or images can be used to design fake credit cards, driver's licenses and any other kind of official-looking ID.
The growth is so rapid that last year, the police department began tracking it separately from other crimes.
Last year, 1,303 cases of identity theft were reported in Montgomery County, police said. In the first 41/2 months of this year, 431 cases have been reported.
Even so, Renninger said, many cases of identity theft are rolled into other reports, so the actual number is much higher. If someone steals a purse, then uses the credit cards to make purchases, he explained, the crime is often reported as a theft.
"Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America. The number of cases increases exponentially every year," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "And the criminals are light-years ahead of law enforcement.
"Law enforcement is very adept at catching child pornographers on the Internet and child solicitations," he continued. "Where we're behind is in cyber-crime, particularly identity theft. We're just in the early stages of addressing it."
And just as the computer makes it easy to do, the computer makes it hard for law enforcement to police.
Original article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17636-2003May20.html
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