Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

UnderstandingYour Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of identity theft. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of identity theft, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on. In some cases, the questions you should ask will be similar to those recommended regarding check and credit card fraud. If you find that such fraud figures heavily in the identity thefts you confront, you should also consult Check and Card Fraud, Guide No. 21 in this series.

Incidents

  • Have checks, cards, or other forms of identity been targeted in crimes such as burglaries of homes and offices, pickpocketing in shopping malls, muggings, and thefts from cars?

    † A study issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that analyzed data on identity theft related cases from 1998 found that fewer than 10 types of ID were stolen or used, the most common being credit cards, driver’s licenses, social security numbers, birth certificates, checks, and alien registration cards. The majority of the cases involved a single ID use (U.S. Sentencing Commission 1999).

  • What do reported cases of identity fraud usually entail: check or card fraud, Internet fraud, forged documents, false drivers’ licenses, theft from cars?
  • Who typically reports the crimes: individual victims, retailers, banks, or credit card issuers?
  • Is online fraud (from credit card sales) a problem in your area? Such fraud may become apparent when offenders order online but arrange to pick up merchandise at the store. Do merchants report any such instances?
  • Are there any cases of parcels stolen or “lost” during delivery of items ordered online?
  • Are there known fencing operations in or near your area? If so, what kinds of items are most commonly fenced, and are they traceable to any local stores? Do new items frequently appear in pawnshops?
  • Are there increases in incidents such as car repossessions or collection agency activities?
  • What is the local incidence of lost mail, mail diversions, and false filings of changes of address with the post office?
  • If your jurisdiction is near a national border or entry point, what data are available on attempts at illegal entry using stolen or false documents?

Offenders

  • Do identity thieves work alone, or in groups? How many work alone? How many work with others? How and where do they get together? How do they offend together? Why do they offend together?
  • What are offenders' demographic characteristics, such as age and gender? Is there an ethnic component?
  • Where do they live, work, or hang out?
  • Do they know, or have they studied, their victims?
  • How active are they? Do particular offenders account for a few identity thefts, or for many? Do they specialize in one particular method of committing identity theft?
  • What, specifically, motivates them? Do they need quick cash to party or to support a family? Do they have any expensive addictions? Are they recently jobless, or are they long-term offenders?
  • Do they show evidence of planning their crimes, or do they take advantage of easy opportunities?
  • What special skills and techniques do they use to commit their crimes?

    † In one study, fraudsters had worked out over 100 different ways of committing credit card fraud ( Jackson 1994). In another, offenders displayed considerable innovation in switching from one technique of check forgery to another (Jackson 1994; Lacoste and Tremblay 2003 [Abstract only]).

Victims

  • How do victims respond to identity theft?
  • Are particular people repeatedly victimized? If so, why?
  • What do victims expect when they contact the police? How long do they wait before reporting the crime to the police?
  • How long does it take for victims to discover that their identity has been stolen? Do they also report the theft to their credit card issuer and bank?
  • How do businesses respond to their victimization? Do they routinely report check and card fraud to the police? (Some may be unwilling to do so for fear that police attention will drive business away, or, in the case of card fraud, because they do not have to bear the loss.) What kinds of businesses report identity fraud: small family stores, large retail chains, supermarkets, local or regional banks, etc.? Why do they report it?
  • What are merchant attitudes regarding police involvement in dealing with identity theft?
  • What procedures do merchants have for detecting or preventing identity theft?
  • Are particular businesses repeatedly victimized? If so, why? (They may have inadequate security procedures in place.)
  • Have any local businesses reported theft or loss of company records?

Locations/Times

  • Do any of the crimes related to identity theft—wallet thefts, check and card fraud, account takeovers, use of fake driver’s licenses—occur in a specific area, on a particular day, and/or at a particular time?
  • Can cases of identity theft be traced back to particular supermarkets, electronics stores, retail chains, restaurants, online stores, or even car dealerships?
  • Do muggings or thefts from cars that entail theft of credit cards and other personal documents occur in neighborhoods where drug dealing is common?
  • Does fraud occur at checkout in local stores?
  • Do thieves use methods that require them to travel to and from specific places? (Some identity thieves, once they have the necessary information, may open several bank accounts in a short period of time, write several large checks, then quickly leave the area).
  • Do thieves use the telephone or Internet to convert their stolen identities into cash? Do they call stores from home, or from public phones? Do they access online stores from home computers, or from those available in public places (e.g., college campuses, public libraries, Internet cafes)?

Current Practices

  • What databases are available to help you prevent or reduce identity theft? You may have access to a number of useful databases, or you may need to construct your own—given, of course, the resources to do it:
    1. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recommends establishing a central database of lost or stolen driver’s licenses, so that local police officers can check IDs against it. While this may seem obvious, information-sharing among agencies continues to be difficult. If your state does not already have such a database, clearly it will require considerable collaboration with law enforcement bodies and state agencies to create one.
    2. The FTC’s Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse is the central national repository of identity theft complaints. All local, state, and federal law enforcement officers can have free Internet access to this secure database. After your organization signs a confidentiality agreement with the FTC, you will be provided with a user ID and password. You can search the database for complaints relating to investigations you are working on, or find clusters of reports detailing suspicious activity regarding locations or people in your community. You can also receive e-mail notifications each time a complaint that relates to your interests hits the database. To learn more about Consumer Sentinel, go to http://www.ftc.gov/sentinel/. To join Consumer Sentinel, go to http://www.ftc.gov/sentinel/cs_signup.pdf.
    3. Credit-issuing and reporting companies such as Visa and MasterCard also maintain databases of lost or stolen cards. You should establish ways of accessing these databases, which will require working with local banks and businesses with ties to those companies.
  • Does your crime analyst (if your department has one) track crimes that relate to and facilitate identity theft? When victims report burglaries or thefts, tracking the use of stolen identity related items such as credit cards may provide clues concerning offenders’ activities, such as which stores prefer. You may then work with the stores to improve security, if it is lax, and also to identify the thieves.
  • Does your department have an established procedure for verifying and recording the identities offenders give when they are stopped, questioned, or arrested? Do officers receive training in ID authentication?
  • Does your department have a crime reporting system that facilitates making a police report for identity theft or fraud?
  • How do local agencies respond to ID theft? Do they have established reporting procedures?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to identity theft:

  • Increases in incident reports (if you have raised awareness of identity theft in your community, including in your police department).
  • Decreases in incident reports and fewer repeat offenders (if your prevention efforts have been effective).
  • Increases in favorable media coverage (resulting from your efforts to raise awareness and sensitivity to the crime, and to publicize your department’s responses to it).
  • Increases in interdepartmental collaborations (resulting from your efforts to coordinate prevention and enforcement activities among relevant government agencies).
  • Decreases in retail losses attributed to identity theft, especially check and card fraud. Retailers may use the number of transactions, or the total amount of sales, as the base against which they compute losses.
  • Increases in measures businesses take to protect employee and client records and privacy (resulting from your work with them to increase security).
  • Differences in reported frauds between stores or banks where you focus your activities and those where you do not (keeping in mind that changes may be due to other factors, and that reported crime does not always reflect actual crime).
  • Reductions in related crimes such as burglaries, thefts from cars, or robberies at ATMs, where credit cards, bankcards, or other forms of identity may be prime targets (keeping in mind that changes may be due to other factors related to those crimes).

    † See the POP Guide on Robbery at Automated Teller Machines.

  • Increases in related crimes when fraudsters’ efforts are thwarted and they shift to easier targets (displacement). One study has suggested that acquisitive crime may increase as credit card fraud decreases.27 Other studies have found that fraudsters tend not to switch easily between different types of credit card fraud,28 though they are resourceful in shifting between different types of check fraud, or at least in inventing new ways to commit it.29
  • Reductions in the number of new products fenced or available in pawnshops.