A walk through the Steamboat Springs Post Office demonstrates why identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in Steamboat Springs and the country.
At noon Friday, credit card applications, bank notices and other unwanted mail containing personal information covered the bottom of trash bins. Those pieces of paper may be unwanted by the recipients, but they contain valuable information that could be used to obtain credit cards, take out loans or even commit crimes in someone else's name.
"It's the fastest-growing crime out there," Steamboat Springs police Detective Ross Kelly said, "because it is lucrative and easy."
Identity theft is growing in cases reported and amounts stolen, Kelly said, and the impacts on the victims can be devastating.
"The way it reaches into your life and touches everything is just unbelievable," Kelly said. "Every aspect of your life is impacted by your credit and your identification."
In most cases the thieves need only three pieces of information: a name, date of birth and social security number. With that, they can take out loans, apply for additional credit cards, open phone or utility accounts, establish bank accounts and write checks, and commit other crimes.
The worst-case scenario, Kelly said, is when the criminal files for bankruptcy under the victim's name or when a warrant is issued in the victim's name for a crime they didn't commit.
In the past year and half, 30 cases of identity fraud have been reported in Steamboat Springs. That was an increase from 10 cases two years ago, Kelly said. Five years ago, it was almost nonexistent.
"Technology has completely flipped this," Kelly said.
The Routt County Sheriff's Office would agree. Undersheriff Dan Taylor called the increase a drastic incline in the past few years.
"At some point, it will be one of the worst crimes to deal with. It is so expensive," Taylor said.
Because Colorado does not have a separate classification for identity theft, city and county law enforcement agencies don't track the exact number of identity thefts in the area. A reported identity theft case could be categorized as theft, check fraud or forgery, Kelly said.
Taylor thinks it will get worse as technology advances and the perpetrators become more sophisticated. Law enforcement agencies often lack the technological expertise to keep pace with the perpetrators.
Typically, victims don't know the theft has occurred until the damage has been done, sometimes a year later. "We are always playing catch-up," Taylor said.
Even when information is found, Sheriff Investigator Ken Klinger said tracking down a culprit can be a jurisdictional nightmare.
The sheriff's office can spend $500 in phone bills and time on a single case making out of state calls. In larger cities, law enforcement agencies are too time-strapped to follow-up on house calls or other contacts that could help solve a fraud case in Routt County.
The sheriff's office solves a high percentage of the crimes committed in Routt County, Klinger said, but identity theft is different.
"I think arrests are impossible because of the jurisdictional issues," he said.
Both the police department and sheriff's office said they have seen almost every kind of identity theft.
The sheriff's office had a case where a Routt County resident originally from Illinois had her social security number being used by illegal immigrants near her hometown. She found out about the identity theft when applying for a cell phone account and discovering one was already set up under her social security number.
Five cases of identity fraud were reported along Routt County Road 129 or roads running off it. None of the residents shopped online, leaving the sheriff's office to conclude information had been taken from their mailboxes.
One woman had her identity stolen by a crime ring in Houston. The police also caught three organized groups at a Steamboat hotel with a fraud ring set up with cell phones and laptops.
In most cases, credit cards are stolen and used or new ones are set up with the stolen identity and sent to a different billing address, Kelly said. Setting up utility accounts and cell phone service under someone else's name is common.
When information is stolen in Steamboat, Kelly said, the purchasing mostly occurs out of state.
"The (thieves) have never met you, they may never even know who you are," Kelly said.
Perpetrators steal mail or rummage through trash bins. If a perpetrator finds a pre-approved credit card in the trash, he or she can sign it and change the mailing address.
"It is so easy; it is so unbelievably easy," Kelly said.
Kelly recalls an e-mail that was sent to AOL users telling them their personal information was lost and sent them to a Web site to re-enter their credit card numbers and other personal information. The e-mail was a fraud.
The best defense against identity theft is keeping track of your personal information, Taylor said.
"You need to be responsible, you need to pay attention to your check book, pay attention to your credit card," Taylor said.
All agencies strongly discourage people from throwing out credit card applications and other unwanted mail with personal identification.
Sheriff Investigate Rochelle Redmond thinks shredding discarded mail is the best way to prevent having mail stolen from the trash.
Kelly warns consumers to be careful in giving out personal information.
"You have to be a little bit more aware of what information you are sharing with people and why they want it and or need it," he said.
The Federal Trade Commission advises people to order copies of their credit reports regularly. The commission also suggests using passwords for credit cards, bank accounts and phone service. It warns not to use common and easy to guess passwords such as a mother's maiden name, birth date, the last four digits of a social security number or a series of consecutive numbers.
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