By GREG RISLING, Associated Press Writer
Stealing mail. Digging through trash. Days spent in front of a
computer trying to unlock financial information. All to score
Authorities are discovering that more and more desperate users of the
drug are turning to identity theft to pay for their habit, creating a
criminal nexus costing Americans millions of dollars.
The trend is sweeping the West and spreading to other parts of the
country, with one hub of activity in the garages and trailer parks of
Riverside and San Bernardino counties on the fringe of suburban Los
The region was the site of a third of California's nearly 500 meth lab
busts in 2004 and is home to the second-highest number of identity
theft victims in the nation.
"It's been said the two crimes go together like rats and garbage,"
said Jack Lucky, a Riverside County prosecutor who nearly became a
victim of ID theft himself before his personal information was found
at a meth lab.
The connection is posing a major challenge for authorities, who until
recently tended to overlook or neglect identity theft evidence at meth
labs in favor of pursuing drug charges that are easier to prove and
carry stiffer penalties.
"We weren't educated or sophisticated enough to spot what they were
doing," said Riverside County sheriff's Sgt. Steve Koller, a narcotics
task force member. "It's taken us a while to catch up."
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (news, bio, voting record), D-Wash., has
called on the Department of Justice to study the link further and
recommend tougher penalties for those convicted of both crimes.
"What we are probably going to find is that there is a stronger
connection than we know right now," she said.
No figures were available on just how much the link is costing
consumers. Separately, however, meth use and identity theft have each
taken their toll.
Nearly 10 million Americans fell victim last year to identity theft,
costing $5 billion. Meanwhile, the popularity of methamphetamine has
grown, with an estimated 12 million people trying it at least once.
Police said meth users - known as "cranksters" -- are drawn to
identity theft because they can stay up for days scanning computer
records or go "Dumpster diving" for discarded financial information.
A drug dealer recently provided fake identities to a woman in Phoenix
who allegedly used them to buy cell phones. She was paid with
methamphetamine, and the phones were later used by some of the
dealer's associates, authorities said.
Last summer, Georgia authorities tracked at least 20 thieves -- known
as the "Mailbox Meth Gang" -- who cruised housing subdivisions looking
for raised flags on mailboxes that could yield checks and bank
statements to exchange for meth. Investigators found 14,000 credit
card numbers in a laptop computer seized from the gang, but the most
success came from using the internet to steal credit card numbers and
other personal information.
Police said the thieves typically do not target one spot too long and
often divide tasks, with different persons stealing the identity,
converting it and then using it.
Alameda police Sgt. Anthony Munoz said about 85 percent of the
identity theft cases he investigates have a connection to
methamphetamine use. In one, a defendant pleaded guilty to 56 counts
of identity theft and was sentenced to just one year in county jail,
"Those are the type of sentences you get," said Munoz, who backs
sentencing enhancements for people convicted of both crimes.
Penalties for identity theft vary from state to state. In California,
where legislators are trying to strengthen the laws, identity thieves
can face up to three years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
"We don't have the significant sentences right now that would deter
some of these individuals," Riverside County District Attorney Grover
Trask said. "It's easy money."
In Arizona, the connection is so prevalent that Attorney General Terry
Goddard now sends an investigator with identity theft expertise to
meth lab busts.
Lucky, the Riverside County prosecutor, didn't realize personal
information had been stolen from his mailbox until a caller said there
had been fraudulent activity linked to his credit card.
He got suspicious when the caller requested his Social Security
number. When he asked for a supervisor, he was given a toll-free
number that was no longer in service.
Identity thieves later applied for credit in his name and the
prosecutor didn't discover where his identity ended up until he got a
call from a sheriff's deputy.
"I guess we weren't really surprised they found it at a meth lab," Lucky
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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