The white-collar crime of identity theft, which has increased dramatically nationwide in the last decade, has not spared Richmond.
Richmond Police Detective Jeffrey Whitson calls Richmond one of the identity theft epicenters of the West Coast. With the technological advances that come with smart phones, online banking, and other exploitative tools, Whitson said he’s getting far more cases across his desk.
“It’s an epidemic,” Whitson said.
Whitson said that from last November to the present he has seen more than 280 identity theft cases reported. He also said that 60 percent of other cases are victims reported to their bank directly instead. Because of the nature of the crime, Whitson estimated that around 90 percent of the victims he comes in contact with are out-of-state. Identity thieves based in Richmond have reached across the country for victims.
Whitson said that crime trends are changing as identity theft becomes more lucrative and easier for criminals to pick up on.
It’s also a less physical crime. Whitson said that the drug dealers of the past are now settling into identity theft because it can all be done from home. And current drug dealers, he said, can use the money from identity theft to fund their business.
The Internet has also made it easier than ever: criminals can find identity theft how-to videos on YouTube, he said.
When burglarizing a home, thieves no longer want just jewelry, Whitson said — they’re after birth certificates, laptops, cell phones and storage devices. And not just to sell the devices, because the bigger payout is the information inside.
At restaurants, a thief can make connections with an employee, and after that it only takes a few seconds to swipe a credit card during the payment process, using a device available on eBay, and instantly have the person’s billing information, which is usually wired outside to a partner collecting the data.
Gas stations and ATMs also pose potential opportunities for identity theft, Whitson said: Skimming devices can be placed near the payment tools with cameras attached that can record a card’s pin number.
Identity theft is also becoming greater than just a one man job, Whitson said.
Criminal networking sharing sites have popped up, on which thieves can sell or share their stolen identity.
“The problem we have is that this person isn’t the only one with this information,” Whitson said.
Whitson said there’s a vast identity theft organization in Richmond. He said he’s worked with four or five cases in which 10-15 suspects were tied together, with more than 200 victims and more than $1 million stolen.
Whitson says that although the thieves have the ability to make a substantial living off of their stolen gains, many spend it frivolously on 20-30 hotel room parties, drugs, massive car rentals, and gambling.
In California, identity theft can be punishable either as a misdemeanor or a felony. If it is classified as a felony, the thief can receive three years in state prison and a $10,000 fine. A misdemeanor could result in up to one year in a county jail and a maximum $1,000 fine. Both punishments are too small, Whitson said.
“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime,“ he said. Once the criminals are released, he said many return to their old habits, because there’s more to gain than to lose.
Kelly Dunn, director of legal services at Rubicon, which is centered in Richmond and provides legal assistance to low-income clients, including those who have had their identities stolen, said he expects more identity theft to come.
“It can impact anybody,” Dunn said. He said Rubicon is starting a new program that will work with issues involved in realignment and inmate populations, and identity theft affects them as well.
“While they were in jail they have their identity stolen,” he said, “and they aren’t able to do anything about it.”
Dunn said it’s not just strangers. Family members have even been perpetrators of identity theft and the issue itself has become more complicated to address.
“It can take months or years to unwind it,” he said, “to get you back to where you were even if that’s possible.”
Whitson said that from his experience, on average $6,000-10,000 is stolen before a victim notices.
“If you don’t monitor it, enough time goes by where banks are not going to help them,” Whitson said.
He suggested using passwords on computers and phones, as well as investing in a safe for important documents.
“Protect your identity as you would protect your property,” Dunn said.