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The meth connection to identity theft

It's not clear which came first, the addiction, or the criminal explosion, but increasingly, authorities believe the struggle against meth use and fight against ID theft are the same battle.

Police in the small Olympic Peninsula town of Port Orchard, Wash., sensed something was wrong when they approached the pickup truck sitting in the town's RV park. To begin with, its occupants were naked. Inside the truck, an even more bizarre scene: Piles and piles of mail.

The truck’s occupants quickly confessed: The mail was stolen, lifted from mailboxes in the hopes of trading it for hits of methamphetamine at a nearby mobile home. There, police found a scene increasingly familiar to drug detectives around the country: The occupants, who were high, were surrounded by a pile of stolen televisions and stereos, a mountain of stolen mail and a small methamphetamine production lab.

“They were drugged out of their minds,” Detective Jerry Jensen says. “They lived like pigs.  It was a house full of stolen stuff and it’s all about meth.”

It is a twin-headed monster ravaging communities across the nation: methamphetamine addiction and identity theft. By all accounts, methamphetamine use is skyrocketing, leaving thousands of broken homes in its wake.  Meanwhile, police officers around the country say nearly every time they bust an ID theft ring, the criminals are meth addicts. 

The drugs and the crime fit neatly together; addicts strung out on meth can stay awake and focused for days at a time, making them expert hackers and mailbox thieves. And ID theft is easy money, the perfect income for drug addicts who have no other way to fund their habit. 

Last year, police busted 9,300 meth labs, and the Federal Trade Commission says 10 million consumers were hit with ID theft.  It's not clear which came first, the addiction, or the criminal explosion, but increasingly, authorities believe the struggle against meth use and fight against ID theft are largely the same battle.

The drug that binds
Detective Jim Dunn of the Thurston County Sheriff's office in Washington says he now gets at least two new identity theft cases every day; on a busy day, eight or nine. At any given time, he’s investigating about 60 active cases, and in about 95 percent of them, meth addiction plays a role.

“ID theft is so easy to do,” Dunn says. “They can steal mail. They have the time, meth keeps them up so long. They have the time to sit and make counterfeit checks, fake driver’s licenses.”

ID theft ring bosses use meth addiction to keep their runners in line, and to get new recruits, says Eugene, Ore., police detective Steve Williams.

Take the case of Steven Massey, convicted for his role as ringleader of an ID theft gang in 2000. Methamphetamine was the glue that kept Massey's ring together, Williams says.

Massey knew where to find meth addicts, and he made them a simple proposal: I’ll trade mail for meth. Soon a small army of meth addicts was prowling neighborhoods near Eugene, stealing mail out of hundreds of mailboxes, and raiding the local recycling center for pre-approved credit card applications. Others in the ring broke into cars to steal purses and wallets -- not for the money, but for the ID papers.

By the time Massey was arrested, investigators say he had gained access to over 400 credit card accounts and netted closed to $400,000.  Massey eventually pleaded guilt to conspiracy to commit computer fraud and to mail theft.

It’s a typical case, Williams says.

“Ninety percent of our ID theft cases deal with drugs,” he said. And it’s usually methamphetamine, which is easy and cheap to produce in mass quantities.

“You don't see a lot of meth users robbing banks," Williams says. "You see someone on heroin do that. Meth users are less likely to get themselves shot.  Plus, they can make more money in a fraud crime than they can sticking a gun in someone's face.  If you bring a gun in a bank, you can face life in prison. Or you can write a series of bad checks and score 10 times that amount and get parole.”

Massey was in fact released on parole last year, but he's already back in police custody -- arrested in Phoenix for allegedly trying to pass a fraudulent check.

Why meth and ID theft go together
Meth is the perfect companion for identity theft because of the nature of the high it gives users, says Mike Gorman, a professor at San Jose State University’s College of Social Work.

A meth user can stay awake for several days at a time, and is often content to perform repetitive tasks -- even having the patience to stitch together shredded documents.

Meth “is energizing. It keeps you alert and focused," Gorman says. Unlike heroin, which generally induces sleep, or crack cocaine, which can lead to impetuous violence, meth is far better-suited to the tasks of identity thieves, he says.

“It’s unique psychopharmacological properties would assist identity theft. The whole detail-oriented aspect of it, the obsessive-compulsive aspect of it.”

Tara, a convicted meth user and identity thief arrested by Detective Mike Hewitt in Vancouver, Wash., explains the phenomenon in a training video she made for police after her arrest.  She agreed to make the video in exchange for a lighter prison sentence and Hewitt in turn agreed to keep her last name private.

In the video, Tara tells Hewitt that when she switched from heroin to meth, her criminal habits changed as well.

“Heroin addicts have a hand-to-mouth existence. If you have a $500-a-day habit, you have to steal $3,000 worth of stuff to support it. It’s a desperation thing,” Hewitt says. "Heroin is related to a lot of shoplifting."

"When I did heroin, I shoplifted," Tara says. "I never had time to be up 24/7.”

Then she took up meth, and “with that kind of time" on her hands, she switched to identity theft, which easily fed her habit.

With their dramatic ups and downs — a meth user can stay awake for days at a time, but then must sleep it off for days at a time — meth addicts can have a harder time holding down part-time jobs than addicts of other drugs. That makes learning how to fund their addiction through identity theft all the more attractive, says John Tennis, public information officer for the Thurston County Sheriff’s office. 

A lot of this learning takes place at organized meth parties. Loosely-knit groups of meth users gather regularly to swap recipes for making meth, and for turning stolen data into cash, Hewitt says.

“It’s like they go to school with older users.  There are parties where they are told to bring their laptops, that are 'classes’ in ID theft,” Hewitt said.  “It’s kind of like a multi-level marketing thing: 'I’ll teach you if I benefit from what you do.'”

Meth is so easy to get, and initially, so inexpensive, that it’s an easy habit to acquire, says Susan Webber-Brown, a district attorney in Butte, Calif., who regularly gives seminars on meth addiction. 

“You can start for $20 to 40 a day, using it once in the morning, once in the afternoon,” she said.  “But after using it a while, you need more to get the same effect, perhaps $125 to $250 a day.” At seven days a week, the cost of addiction stacks up quickly, leaving crime as the only alternative for funding the habit.

Identity theft quickly becomes the obvious answer for meth addicts — even convicted addicts currently serving time, says Detective Joe DeJournette of Yakima, Wash.

“Identity theft can be committed even by people under home detention from the comfort of their own homes,” he says. He calls it “drive-through” crime.

“I have a case where a suspect brought a credit card to a trailer home to a girl who activated the card on a computer in her trailer … while she was wearing her home detention anklet.”

National attention, but not much help
The connection between meth and ID theft have received nationwide attention. During congressional hearings on the Fair Credit Reporting Act last summer, Evan Hendricks of The Privacy Times told the Senate Banking Committee about Phoenix-area meth and ID theft rings called “Tweakers."

“They have their own terminology. They don’t work, they live in hotel rooms and stolen vehicles; they keep late hours. They love to gamble,” Hendricks told the committee, quoting Phoenix area U.S. Postal Inspector Robert Maes. “Someone will know someone who will trade drugs for Social Security numbers.”

But the crime continues to overwhelm local police forces; many are crying out for more federal assistance. Hewitt says his fraud caseload has climbed 300 percent each year since he began working ID theft cases five years ago. 

Meanwhile, as the police work gets harder, the work of identity thieves gets easier, DeJournette says. Criminals can now buy software at office supply stores for a few dollars that prints out official-looking checks with any stolen account number on them. Even special banking magnetic ink, once used to determine the authenticity of a check, is now being sold in inkjet printer cartridges by office supply stores.

“What is the federal government doing?” DeJournette asks. “What will help the little towns across the country with our one fraud detective, to fight these crimes? "