Smaller police departments face challenges in tracking perpetrators.
Identity theft can steal your money, ruin your credit and give you an instant criminal record for something you didn't do.
It's becoming an increasing problem in the Mahoning Valley, just as it is across the country. According to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 10 million Americans were the victim of some kind of identity theft in 2003.
And it's still an elusive crime to track down, despite increasing awareness and heightened efforts by law enforcement agencies.
"We've had some success in tracking it down to certain locations, but these are tough cases to solve sometimes," said Frank Bigowsky, a detective with the Girard Police Department.
The most common forms of identity theft involve the theft of someone's Social Security number or credit card numbers to open additional credit accounts or to apply for services such as cell phones, local law enforcement officers say.
"We get complaints that accounts have been opened in someone's name without their permission, or that someone has stolen a credit card number and their statement has charges that they didn't make," Bigowsky said.
Online transactions can make people more susceptible to identity crimes, and the lack of boundaries in cyberspace can cause law enforcement agencies to span long distances to solve these crimes.
Bigowsky described a case in which a local couple used a debit card to purchase knives from a San Diego, Calif.-based Internet site. They never received the merchandise, and also noticed unauthorized purchases from other merchants on their next bank statement.
Because the case involved interstate commerce, Bigowsky enlisted the help of the U.S. Secret Service, and also contacted the San Diego police.
"We were able to make a case against a suspect out there for identity theft and the use of a computer to commit a crime," he said. "But that doesn't happen very often over that distance."
Bigowsky said that identity theft crimes are particularly challenging for small police departments with limited manpower and resources.
"Sometimes it's hard to get departments in other jurisdictions to help," he said. "One identity theft case to us is a piece of work, but if you trace it to Cleveland or Columbus, they've got a lot of these to deal with."
Most identity theft crimes have economic impact, but Youngstown Police Chief Robert Bush Jr. identified an even more insidious type, which can give an innocent person a police record.
Criminal suspects who obtain others' names, addresses and Social Security numbers may use that information when they're arrested, causing the identity theft victim an unwanted experience in the justice system.
"We've had situations where someone will be arrested and brought into court and an officer will say, 'That's not the person I stopped,'" Bush said.
Bush says this can cause serious problems for the identity theft victim.
"It's almost like these people will have to start a new life for themselves," he said.
Area police chiefs and detectives say their departments plan to participate in a new program from the Ohio Attorney General's office will help both victims and law enforcement officials deal with identity theft more effectively.
Under the Passport Identity Theft Verification Program, victims who report identity theft to local authorities will be given a card which they can use as proof of the theft to creditors and law enforcement officials.
The program also provides step-by-step instructions for reporting identity theft to creditors and for creating fill-in-the-blank affidavits to send to creditors and credit bureaus.
Victim information will be entered into a secure Web site that can be accessed by law enforcement officials.
Officials hope that the Passport will assist victims as they try to rebuild their credit and identify any fraudulent criminal charges.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies say they're still learning about this fast-growing crime.
Russell Beatty Jr., police chief of Poland village, said his department has only an occasional complaint about identity theft. But he says that a recent "60 Minutes" broadcast about credit card scams alerted him to a few other tactics employed by identity thieves.
"You saw people copying down the numbers of credit cards that people left in their car," he said. "And another thing they do is to hang out at checkouts in stores so they can try to take pictures of credit cards as they're presented."
And his bottom-line advice sums up what applies to almost every method that's been devised to intercept someone else's financial identity.
"People just need to be more careful," he said.