Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jun 2004
Source: Times Record News (Wichita Falls, TX)
Copyright: 2004 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: Matt Terrell, Times Record News
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Users Turn to Crime to Satisfy Addiction

It's a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the heart of Wichita Falls -
identify theft and methamphetamine addiction.

Police say methamphetamine use is rising at a devastating rate,
ruining lives and sending a seemingly infinite stream of cases pouring
into the courts.

Then there's the scene of the crime.

Wichita Falls Forgery Detective Chris Gay said many methamphetamine
raids yield stolen checks, stolen credit cards, piles of stolen mail
or fake identification.

The Connection?

"Stolen checks are the catalyst of the bartering system of
methamphetamines," Gay said. They're commodities. They'll trade a
stolen book of checks just for a hit."

The methamphetamine connection has sent the number of forgery cases
skyrocketing over the past two years, Sgt. Cindy Walker said. That
number is more than a nuisance. She called it an epidemic.

"It's a catastrophic problem," Walker said. "We have over 300 cases
being worked right now. We had to add another detective to forgery
investigation to keep up."

Almost all of it's for drug money.

Methamphetamine users have addictions that run deeper than their
pocketbooks, and they'll do anything for a hit.

"Only 6 percent that ever get on it are ever able to get off it," said
Kenny Smith, U.S. postal inspector.

Methamphetamine highs are long and exhilarating, while the downs are
excruciating, especially for those deep in addiction. Because of the
seesaw effect, hard-core methamphetamine users have a difficult time
holding down jobs. This makes satisfying drug cravings even more difficult.

"When tweakers - that's what we call them - start developing a daily
habit, they have to turn to crime to fund it," Smith said.

Identity theft and check forgery are ways for quick money. How they do
it is way too easy.

The check looked good enough to cash.

It had the United Regional Health Care Systems logo on it. There was a
signature, an ID to match and an American National Bank routing number.

It was a fake good enough for someone to walk out of United
Supermarkets with a handful of cash, one step closer to a hit.

Roy Olsen, senior vice president of American National Bank, said this
recent incident was just one of an never-ending string of phony and
forged checks that fall through the cracks of the business.

"We've had more losses in the last two years from forged and bad
checks than in my whole 20 years prior to it," Olsen said. "I got a
telephone call from police just this morning telling me there had been
a drug bust, and they found one of our bank cards in the mess."

Whether the checks are fake or stolen, the methamphetamine users are
organized and efficient. They work in small gangs tied to larger
gangs, all blood-bound to the same goal - get high.

They never stay in the same place for long. They move from hotel room
to hotel room, from city to city, choosing targets at random then
moving on again.

The types of targets are always the same though, and tweakers hit hard
and fast.

Mail is a favorite, and meth-heads have the time and patience to sort
through loads of it.

Smith said between 95 and 99 percent of mail theft is a result of
methamphetamine users trying to support their habits. The effects of
methamphetamines leaves them strung out all night, willing to go
through piles of papers and garbage for useful information.

"They're on speed and are up for days at a time, which leads to this
type of work," Smith said. "You don't see this with other types of
drugs. Methamphetamine users prefer detail-oriented crime."

Ordinarily, they do volume attacks at apartment complexes. Behind one
panel there could be 40 or 50 people's mail. Check thieves will go to
curbside mailboxes and even up to houses while people are home, Smith

"We've seen some brazen enough to follow mail carriers on their route
and steal mail right after it's delivered," Smith said. "They're so
high they don't even care."

A rising number of car burglaries are also linked to the
methamphetamine industry, Gay said. The information contained in a
typical purse or wallet is enough to give a methamphetamine user a
long string of hits.

"My son had his wallet stolen out of his truck," Olsen said. "They
took his checks, signed them and used them at various businesses. When
they ran out of checks, they went and printed some more checks with
the same information."

Identity thieves are not above digging through trash either. There
they find credit cards and applications, Social Security numbers, bank
account numbers, old checks, names, relative's names - enough to
destroy someone's life.

That's why buying a shredder is a wise investment, Walker said. "They
can fill out one of those applications, put a change of address on it
and rack up a $10,000 bill."

After checks or identifying information are stolen, the possibilities
are limitless for tweakers.

They can trade them, sell them, open up bank accounts, wash checks,
pass the checks as their own or use the information to print new checks.

Part of the problem is that many checks are very easy to duplicate,
and technology is allowing for easy production.

"You can go buy check stock at Office Depot and immediately start
printing them," Olsen said. "If Joe Merchant wants to buy the cheapest
checks without safety features, he can do that, but he doesn't realize
he's helping to perpetuate fraud because his checks are so easy to

The Money Place Manager Tom Francis makes a living cashing

One bad one keeps bouncing back.

"There was a guy who stole his grandfather's checks and cashed them
all the time. The grandfather didn't pay much attention until he found
out his account was drained," Francis said. "I didn't know what was
going on."

Even after the suspect was picked up by police, Francis saw the man
back in his business a couple days later, trying to pass off another

"I recognized him this time, so I didn't cash it," Francis said. "I
felt sorry for that old man."

Check fraud and identity theft can leave horrible scars on anyone

Usually, those cashing stolen checks take out anywhere from $100 to
$1,200 at a time. Sometimes with payroll checks, the losses can be
$1,800 to $2,000, Gay said.

"If you're a victim, it could take a year to clear yourself," Gay
said. "You have to send police reports to collection agencies to prove
you weren't the one spending the money."

Not reporting immediately could land you in the slammer. "Unless you
quickly fill out a forgery affidavit with all the local law
enforcement, there can be a warrant issued in your name for
insufficient funds," Smith said.

For businesses, having to deal with forgery after forgery is described
with one word: frustrating.

"If someone passes a bad check at a business, and there's no money in
the account and we return it, the merchant loses the money and has to
recover the funds," said David O'Neil, vice president of Wells Fargo
Bank. "If we paid it, like a payroll check, then we're the ones out
those funds."

Olsen recently had to install a video surveillance system in American
National Bank's drive-thru so there would be solid visual
identification of any potential forgers.

"That's another expense - we're having to take to track these people
down," Olsen said.

Francis is more than frustrated with the forgery problem. He said it's
becoming harder and harder to make a decent living in the check
cashing business.

"I invested in one of these check scanners, and the only thing it
turned down was a good check," Francis said. "It makes you sick at the
world and your fellow human beings when you see things like this. When
they're involved with drugs, they'll do anything in the world to get a



Here are some ways you can defend yourself against check fraud and
identity theft:

--Shred any old documents with important information before throwing
them away. Look for account numbers, credit cards, Social Security
numbers and drivers license information. Remember, some people have no
problem digging through garbage if it means quick cash.

--If your employer and bank has a direct deposit option for payment,
give it a shot. It's hard for crooks to steal payroll checks when you
don't have any. If the option is not available, see if checks can be
picked up at your bank.

--Be careful when mailing items from your home. Don't use mailbox
flags. They tell thieves that mail is there. Remove any delivered mail
as soon as possible, and never leave items in a mailbox overnight.

--Drop off outgoing mail with identifying information at the post
office. This could be anything from IRS documents to a water bill.

--Carefully monitor credit reports and bank statements. That way
you'll know quickly if anything is wrong.

--Never leave a purse or wallet in an unattended car. Many identity
thefts are a result of vehicle burglaries.