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Identity theft problem now spans the globe

For local police, identity theft is a crime most effectively fought close to home.

Credit card fraud -- whether the actual card is stolen or just the account number -- is the most commonly reported identity theft complaint in New York, according to data kept by the Federal Trade Commission. It accounted for 22 percent -- or 4,180 -- of the 18,906 identity theft complaints logged in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

Nationwide, New York ranked eighth in the number of identity theft complaints in 2009.

Local crime-fighting efforts benefit from the widespread use of sophisticated surveillance systems, which help police identify and arrest the people using stolen cards.

"There's quite a few that we make arrests on," said Neil Conte, a State Police senior investigator based in Clarence.

A recent State Police investigation zeroed in on a young woman who had been using her sister's name and Social Security number for a couple of years, opening credit accounts at stores, obtaining credit cards and even a loan.

"We tracked where deliveries were made, where the money went," Conte said.

In an investigation that originated in Kenmore, police cracked the case of a restaurant employee who wrote down customers' credit card numbers, which were used to pay for an electronics buying spree. Along with making an arrest, police recovered tens of thousands of dollars' worth of property from the vacant apartment to which it had been shipped, Kenmore Police Chief Carl J. LaCorte reported.

But other technology allows criminals to operate well beyond the reach of local police.

As local residents shop on the Internet, their credit accounts could be pilfered from afar.

"Those are the cases -- without getting other agencies involved and furthering the investigation -- the chances of making an arrest are minimal," Conte said.

Police in other departments agree.

"Often times, this crosses over jurisdictions; not so much town to town but across the state and other states," said Lt. Michael J. Isbrandt of the Cheektowaga Police Department.

"Because of the nature of technology today, [criminals] could be doing these things from anywhere in the world," said LaCorte.

It's not that local police don't try to catch identity thieves; their investigations can go only so far.

"We try to find out where the compromise happened. That's a good starting point," said Isbrandt.

The U.S. Secret Service, a federal agency, also investigates identity thefts.

"It's one of our core violations," said Tracy Gast, special agent in charge of the Buffalo office. "Identity theft is not limited to credit cards, obviously."

The Secret Service typically investigates larger, organized rings involved in identity theft or credit card access device fraud -- cases that are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Secret Service agents worked with State Police in investigating a criminal ring that used counterfeit credit and debit cards -- utilizing stolen account numbers -- to withdraw more than $500,000 from cash machines in casinos in Western New York and elsewhere. That investigation already has resulted in six convictions in U.S. District Court.

Isbrandt recommends that victims of cyber crime log in to www.ic3.gov, where complaints can be filed about cases involving the Internet. And Conte suggests www.ftc.gov, which provides information on deterring, detecting and defending against identity theft.

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com