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July 30, 2014

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In cases of ID theft, numbers do lie

Metro reported triple the number of cases in ‘07 as cited in federal ranking

BY THE NUMBERS

2,930 — Number of identity theft complaints filed by Nevadans reported by the Federal Trade Commission in 2007

8,761 — Complaints filed by residents of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, according to Metro

Nevada has the nation’s third-worst identity theft problem — according to a federal study that wildly underestimates the rates.

A Federal Trade Commission report released last week revealed Nevada citizens filed 2,930 identity theft complaints in 2007, enough to rank us third in the nation, per-capita.

But Metro Police say residents of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County filed 8,671 identity theft complaints that year.

The reason for the almost three-fold difference? Victims who reported identity theft cases to the FTC were just going the extra mile. It’s widely understood that more than half of identity theft victims don’t report the crime to local police, let alone tell the feds.

So in reality, Nevada victims are third in the nation when it comes to reporting their cases to the FTC. For all we know, we might rank even higher for actual cases of identity theft.

Last year local victims told police they lost $20 million to identity thieves. Metro Capt. Stavros Anthony, briefing the department’s top brass Tuesday, put it like this: ID theft is “expected to increase every year for the foreseeable future.”

The federal numbers don’t match our local statistics because identity theft isn’t a crime police are required to report to federal authorities for tracking. And even if it were, the number wouldn’t be an accurate accounting of how prevalent the crime is, experts say. Bob Sebby, a lieutenant in Metro’s financial crimes section, figures only one in every 10 local victims files a police report.

Most people who discover their credit or debit cards have been compromised call their bank and consider the case closed when a refund comes through. This is a problem for police officers such as Sebby, who need victim crime reports to track down credit card skimming devices and forgery operations.

In 2008, 9,101 cases were reported to Metro’s identity theft and forgery task force, which is 17 detectives strong.

To illustrate the problem for his peers Tuesday, Anthony showed the room a photograph of a local Bank of America ATM. It looked normal to the many people who ran their cards through it — until the part holding the card reader fell out of the machine. Inside, the police found a camera and a card skimmer, which allowed thieves to capture private bank account information encoded on the card’s magnetic strip.

Nevada is regularly ranked in the top five for instances of identity theft. In fact, our third-place ranking in the 2007 federal study is an improvement — for the previous five years, Nevada was second in the nation.

Gaming destinations are always a lure, Sebby says, because of the amount of cash casinos keep on hand. With the right forged documents, thieves can get cash advances from casino cages, or come in with bogus cashier’s checks, trade them for chips and play at being high rollers with stolen money, until they cash out and vanish.

That’s the rub — finding identity thieves is often a matter of incredibly complicated monthslong investigations. When a criminal is pretending to be someone else, finding out who he really is isn’t easy.

“We’re always searching for a ghost in the beginning,” Sebby said. “We have to take nothing and turn it into a live human being.”

The majority of identity theft cases can be traced back to mailboxes or trash cans that have been rifled through, credit card skimmers and online scams. Numerous Web sites — including Metro’s lvmpd.com — offer advice on how to protect your identity. Sebby’s suggestion — if you must use a debit card, never let it out of your sight.

In one instance, Metro detectives discovered waiters were skimming credit cards, then selling the info to a second set of thieves, who would tap into the accounts. Stockpiles of stolen bank information are bought and sold this way, by groups of criminals who work in and out of the country, Anthony said. More organized gangs are getting into the business, as well as violent criminals, who figure getting their hands on someone else’s bank account is more lucrative and easier than sticking up a 7-Eleven.

And it’s not just citizens. A growing number of Metro Police are victims of ID theft, Anthony said. As he looked out at Metro’s command staff during his Tuesday meeting with them, he added: “It’s pretty brutal out there.”

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