July 11, 2006
Meth Users, Attuned to Detail, Add ID Theft Habit
By JOHN LELAND
Joe Morales, a prosecutor in Denver, can remember when crack came to his city in the 1980’s. Gangs set up on Colfax Avenue and in the Five Points neighborhood, and street crime — murders and holdups — grew.
When methamphetamine proliferated more recently, the police and prosecutors at first did not associate it with a rise in other crimes. There were break-ins at mailboxes and people stealing documents from garbage, Mr. Morales said, but those were handled by different parts of the Police Department.
But finally they connected the two. Meth users — awake for days at a time and able to fixate on small details — were looking for checks or credit card numbers, then converting the stolen identities to money, drugs or ingredients to make more methamphetamine. For these drug users, Mr. Morales said, identity theft was the perfect support system.
While public concern about identity theft has largely focused on elaborate computer schemes, for law enforcement officials in Denver and other Western areas, meth users have become the everyday face of identity theft. Like crack cocaine in the 1980’s, officials say, the rise of methamphetamine has been accompanied by a specific set of crimes and skills that are shared among users and dealers.
“The knowledge of how to violate the law comes contemporaneously with the meth epidemic,” said Sheriff Paul A. Pastor of Pierce County, Wash., who said the majority of identity theft cases his officers investigated involved methamphetamine.
Tammie Carroll, a mother of four in Denver who was indicted in 2003 in an identity theft ring, described her social circle succinctly.
“Anybody I knew that did meth was also doing fraud, identity theft or stealing mail,” Ms. Carroll said. “We helped each other out, whatever we needed to do that day. They all had their own little role.“
Mr. Morales, director of the Denver district attorney’s economic crime unit, said 60 percent to 70 percent of his office’s identity theft cases involved methamphetamine users or dealers, often in rings of 10 or more.
“Look at the states that have the highest rates of identity theft — Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas and Colorado,’’ Mr. Morales said. “The two things they all have in common are illegal immigration and meth.”
But identity thieves are difficult to generalize about because most crimes are never solved. The prevalence of meth use among identity theft suspects may say more about the state of law enforcement than about the habits of lawbreakers. In other words, meth users may simply be the easiest to catch.
In Denver, Mr. Morales said his office and the local police lacked the resources to pursue more sophisticated identity thieves who crossed jurisdictions or bought and sold identities over the Internet. On the other hand, he said, “it’s easy to get a meth addict to flip’’ and testify against others.
Nonetheless, prosecutors, police officers, drug treatment professionals, former identity thieves and recovering addicts describe a connection between meth use and identity theft that is fluid and complementary, involving the hours that addicts keep, the nature of a methamphetamine high and the social patterns of meth production and use, which differ from those of other illegal drugs.
For example, crack cocaine or heroin dealers usually set up in well-defined urban strips run by armed gangs, which stimulates gun traffic and crimes that are suited to densely populated neighborhoods, including mugging, prostitution, carjacking and robbery. Because cocaine creates a rapid craving for more, addicts commit crimes that pay off instantly, even at high risk.
Methamphetamine, by contrast, can be manufactured in small laboratories that move about suburban or rural areas, where addicts are more likely to steal mail from unlocked boxes. Small manufacturers, in turn, use stolen identities to buy ingredients or pay rent without arousing suspicion. And because the drug has a long high, addicts have patience and energy for crimes that take several steps to pay off.
In a survey of 500 county sheriffs, 27 percent said methamphetamine had contributed to a rise in identity theft in their areas. Even more — 62 percent and 68 percent, respectively — noted that it contributed to increases in domestic abuse or robberies and burglaries.
“I think identity theft is a big deal; there’s a lot of it going on,’’ said Terree Schmidt-Whelan, executive director of the Pierce County Alliance in Washington, which provides court-mandated drug treatment to addicts. “But I don’t think it’s going on to the extent we read about because we’re not seeing it to that extent here.’’
The circumstances of methamphetamine arrests, Dr. Schmidt-Whelan said, can exaggerate the connection with identity theft. “If a sheriff does a bust and there are 10 people in a room, are they all doing it?’’ she asked.
After law enforcement officers in Washington reported that high percentages of their identity theft cases involved methamphetamine, including 100 percent in Spokane County, Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, proposed a bill to study the connection.
Richard Rawson, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been studying methamphetamine since the 1980’s, agrees that meth use is compatible with the kind of concentration needed to be an identity thief.
“Crack users and heroin users are so disorganized and get in these frantic binges, they’re not going to sit still and do anything in an organized way for very long,” Dr. Rawson said. “Meth users, on the other hand, that’s all they have, is time. The drug stimulates the part of the brain that perseverates on things. So you get people perseverating on things, and if you sit down at a computer terminal you can go for hours and hours.”
But Dr. Rawson said he had not seen a connection with identity theft in his research, and had not heard of one until law enforcement officials started bringing it up in conferences in the last year.
“If it is a major event, it’s a relatively new one,” he said. “How widespread it is, I don’t know.”
In Phoenix, which has the nation’s highest rate of identity theft complaints, officials first became aware of the connection when laboratory raids uncovered stolen mail and checks that had been washed with acetone, a chemical used to make methamphetamine.
“We thought for a while that that was the connection,” said Todd C. Lawson, a state prosecutor who specializes in identity theft. “But we learned there was much more to it.”
Often identity theft rings organize like meth labs, where one person has the technical skills and others gather the raw materials. In an identity theft ring, one person might work the computer and the others steal identities or use the fraudulent checks or credit cards to get cash.
In Minnesota, meth laboratories and users developed a barter economy of washed checks, stolen checkbooks, drugs, ingredients and equipment, said Carol Falkowski, a spokeswoman for Hazelden, a drug treatment center in Center City.
In rural parts of Salt Lake County, Utah, meth addicts take their stolen identities onto the Internet because it has more targets than the local area, said Pat Fleming, director of county substance abuse services. “Meth is one of the major things driving identity theft in Utah,” Mr. Fleming said.
Cocaine and heroin bypassed these areas because importers took the drugs directly to Salt Lake City, where addicts commit different crimes to pay for them.
For D., a 22-year-old woman in Missoula, Mont., meth and identity theft just came together.
“It’s always suggested if you’re around people that are high,” she said, agreeing to be identified only by her first initial because she said she was afraid of a past associate. “They know that this is an easy way to get money. That’s the only way we ever found out about it, here anyway.”
With advice from a fellow user, D. and her husband at the time stole a checkbook and wrote $5,600 worth of checks, using the money to buy drugs, gamble at Montana casinos and pay for hotel rooms, where she stayed up all night doing crossword puzzles. She never considered more traditional forms of crime, she said.
“Going and stealing money from people is too risky,” D. said. “With this, I was sitting in my car at a bank, I could drive away if I wanted to. That’s the only way I would have ever considered because I felt it was more safe. Now I think it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
She was caught, finally, when she misspelled the signature of one of her victims.
For Ms. Carroll, the end came when one of her accomplices took an identity out of Ms. Carroll’s trash and tried to use it. Ms. Carroll discarded identities every few days to avoid detection. When the police arrested her, the accomplice pointed them to Ms. Carroll.
Ms. Carroll said she had not used methamphetamine since Jan. 7, 2003. She has also regained custody of her three children, who were placed in foster care after her arrest; a fourth, an infant at the time, was adopted.
Ms. Carroll said she planned to start college in August.
“I still see people put the little red flags up on their mailboxes when they’re mailing their bills,” she said. “It amazes me. They still put their checks in their own mailboxes, and that was one of the biggest things we did was watch for red flags on mailboxes. You’re sending your electricity bill, you have a check in there, that’s all the information we needed.”
People underestimate the resourcefulness of thieves, she said.
“Five days a week we did it,” Ms. Carroll said. “It was like a job.”