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 methamphetamine.
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 Angeles.
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, he said.
"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 said.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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