By William Berger, Chief of Police, Palm Bay, Florida; and IACP Past President
eldom do we in the law enforcement profession carry the mantel of crime victim. However, that is exactly what happened to this author; I am one of the millions of victims of identity crime.
In the fall of 1997, I was making my holiday shopping purchases, as so many other U.S. citizens do, when a cashier encouraged me to sign up for a store credit card. The incentive to obtain the card was an immediate 20 percent off my purchase, with the understanding that no other purchases were required. Since the deal was too good to pass up and the store was one of national stature, the decision to sign up appeared to be a no-brainer. Little did I know that my decision would actually lead me to fund international terrorism.
About a month after my purchase, I received my new credit card along with a statement that reflected my discount. I paid the bill, put the card away, and never used it again. Two years later, I was shocked to receive another statement reflecting the purchase of automobile insurance from a company that I did not immediately recognize; I have had my auto insurance with the same company for more than 20 years.
I contacted the credit card company and, to my surprise, found that between the date my statement was issued and the time I made the telephone call, more than $6,000 of additional car insurance from four other companies had been charged to my account. The credit card company was diligent in investigating the matter, and after 10 days, they cancelled the card and adjusted my account to reflect a zero balance. As an investigator for most of my police career and as a police chief of 10 years at the time, my curiosity and training prompted me to ask questions and demand answers. Credit card company officials speculated that I was a prime target because the card had stayed dormant for two years and because South Florida, where I live, is a prime location for persons to retire. Many retirees leave active lines of credit open when they die—easy prey for dishonest persons working in the credit industry. (In fact, 17,780 identity crime complaints were reported in Florida in 2006, fifth highest among states reporting identity crime.1)
In my case, the credit card company officials suspected, but never proved, that some of their employees either gave my information willingly or sold it to individuals who then used the information and credit card numbers to purchase the unauthorized automobile insurance. Later, the credit card company determined, based on past practices, that these persons purchased the automobile insurance to set up scam accidents to generate bogus claims. Authorities determined that the groups that benefited from these scams at the time of my incident in 1999 had ties to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. These groups were using the insurance settlements to fund terrorist activity like the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Difficulties of Fighting Identity Crime
As a victim of identity crime, I have dedicated myself to educating the public to avoid becoming a victim. It became crystal clear to me that the law enforcement profession is not yet properly equipped to assist victims of identity crime and investigate the perpetrators. However, as with all crimes, prevention is key. Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to educate not only the public about identity crime but also law enforcement investigators assigned to investigate identity crime. I have found that most people are completely unaware of how to protect themselves and their personal information.
Furthermore, the average investigators assigned to investigate this crime in the United States do not have the tools they need to assist victims and are already overtaxed. For example, in a basic identity crime investigations class taught in New Hampshire, only two of the 27 investigative attendees in the class had the necessary skills and tools to investigate identity crime, even though all of them had the responsibility to investigate identity crimes in their jurisdictions.
An additional complication is that identity crime knows no geographic boundaries and demands a coordinated investigative effort between law enforcement and other government agencies across jurisdictions.For example, a victim may live in one state, but the charge to the victim’s account may have originated in another state. Jurisdiction issues can be confusing for law enforcement agencies that are unfamiliar with identity theft/crime law or do not have departmental procedures for receiving and investigating complaints of identity crime.
Identity crime takes a toll not only on victims and law enforcement agencies but also on financial institutions. The public and the law enforcement community sometimes underestimate the cost of identity crime to financial institutions. To protect themselves, some financial institutions are in the process of adopting stricter guidelines on credit cards and bank-related crimes to shift more responsibility to identity criminals.
The Value of Partnership
Though such U.S. organizations as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), National White Collar Crime Commission (NW3C), Postal Inspection Service, Secret Service, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provide identity crime training opportunities, informational Web sites, and videos, a tremendous void still exists. Unfortunately, there has not been a one-stop location or comprehensive package to assist investigators and first responders in investigations of identity crimes.
Recently, to address this need, the IACP partnered with Bank of America to develop an arsenal of toolkits to help prevent identity crime and assist law enforcement officers in their investigations. Because of my experience and my passion for preventing this ever-evolving crime, I was selected to participate in the project.
The purpose of the partnership is to bring together the three important groups burdened by the effects of identity crime: individual victims, the law enforcement community, and financial institutions. In the past, each group individually has made efforts to produce information but never in collaboration. In the new partnership, selected participants were asked to commit both time and active feedback to build both a Web site and protocols and toolkits from the ground up. The partnership is committed to keeping these materials constantly up to date to battle this continually changing crime. Each of the final products includes information aimed at assisting victims, law enforcement agencies, and financial institutions.
At this year’s annual conference in New Orleans, the IACP released the culmination of these efforts: toolkits designed to assist in preventing and investigating identity crime. All of the products are available at the IACP’s identity crime Web site: www.idsafety.org
A review of all current state and federal laws regarding identity crime indicates that the penalties range from probation to a maximum sentence of 24 months in prison. Some states and individual prosecutors have adopted aggravated identity theft charges and are prosecuting numerous cases together to enhance convictions with additional time. However, the sentences are still below five years. Information about identity crime laws in a particular state as well as across the United States is available by visiting the ID Safety Web site.
As former attorney general Janet Reno warned at the annual IACP conference in San Diego in 2000, identity crime and cybercrimes will become the crimes of the new millennium. The law enforcement community does not yet have the tools it needs to fight these crimes. However, the ID Safety Web site is an important first step in educating both the public and the law enforcement community about how to prevent identity crimes and investigate perpetrators. ■
1Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data: January–December 2006, February 2007, http://www.consumer.gov/sentinel/pubs/Top10Fraud2006.pdf (accessed November 26, 2007), 18.