- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — 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 nationwide, 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 raids last year and is home to the second-highest number of identity theft victims in the nation.

“It has been said the two crimes go together like rats and garbage,” said Jack Lucky, a Riverside County prosecutor.

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 has taken us a while to catch up.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, has called on the Department of Justice to study the link 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 how much the link is costing consumers. Separately, however, meth use and identity theft have taken their toll.

Nearly 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year, costing $5 billion. Meanwhile, the popularity of meth has grown, with an estimated 12 million people trying it at least once.

In the summer, Georgia authorities tracked at least 20 thieves — known as the “Mailbox Meth Gang” — who cruised 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.

Alameda, Calif., police Sgt. Anthony Munoz said that as many as 85 percent of the identity theft cases he investigates have a connection to meth 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 Sgt. 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 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,” said Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask. “It’s easy money.”

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