Authorities say that identify theft is soaring in California and that street gangs are increasingly getting involved in the crimes.
Police said that the basics of the identity theft are easy to master and the tools for mass fraud are so widely available that it is attracting street gangs at a rapid rate.
Street gangs accounted for a 31 percent increase in identity-theft complaints to local authorities last year. The increase is highlighted in a study of California identity fraud that was released Tuesday by Identity Theft 911, a consulting firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The study estimates that 1.5 million Californians became identity theft victims in 2007, making the state’s per-capita rate second only to that of Arizona.
The most common form of identity theft across the nation is credit card fraud.
Number two on the list is employment-related fraud. The study attributes undocumented workers who use stolen Social Security numbers.
Authorities said that since the value of the nine-digit identification has risen, new laws are making it riskier for businesses to employ illegal immigrants.
A ring connected to the Long Beach Insane Crips recently used a check-cashing scheme to steal more than $88,000 from multiple branches of Washington Mutual, said Kathryn Showers, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County.
Investigators said 15 conspirators used counterfeit checks and money orders and persuaded people to deposit bogus documents and then withdraw cash. Court records show that at Bank of America branches in Northridge and Granada Hills, thieves withdrew more than $150,000.
Police searches in March 2006 turned up computers, guns and paperwork for building false identities. According to Showers, the group paid tellers to approve withdrawals they should not have. Several of the ringleaders have since pleaded guilty.
Showers said theft of identifying information is occurring at all kinds of levels. “Identify theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Southern California,” she said.
In a recent case, members of the Armenian Power put false keypads on top of legitimate ATMs to record passwords and later withdrew money from 120 accounts.
“Gang members sometimes recruit corporate employees,” said Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego nonprofit group that helped with the study. They visit restaurants, bars and other hangouts, listening for people complaining about money troubles, then offer cash in exchange for information they can use in identity theft.”
She said gang members resort to identify theft because they often have trouble finding a job. “It can be hard to get hired when there’s a swastika tattooed on your head,” Foley said.