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But because the crime is so far-reaching in its nature, it crosses many jurisdictions, not just from city to city and state to state but from agency to agency as well, and few law enforcement officers want to deal with the boundary disputes. But the fact is that the crime can be prosecuted from where the victim is as well as where the crime took place.
Law enforcement officers tend to be more comfortable with physical evidence. As Gail Thackeray of the Arizona Attorney General's Office explains it, when someone stands in Phoenix and shoots across the city line to hit someone in Scottsdale, the police have no problem with the case. The police from either city can pursue the case.
"When you get into the white collar areas, somehow they get confused about that," she says. "The police don't understand that to mean if checks are bouncing in Lake Havasu with the victim here in Phoenix, parts of that crime could be prosecuted in Phoenix. Our argument as lawyers is that identity theft occurs, one, where any fraud is happening, and two, where the victim is, because the victim is the one suffering the harm of the crime. That's where the creditors are calling. That's where the rude mail is coming, and that's where the actual trauma is occurring. I don't think the banks are all that upset if they lose two hundred bucks."
When the crime crosses state lines, it's even more troublesome, that case where your name is appearing on charge accounts in New Hampshire, say. It's a federal crime, but federal law enforcement agencies are unlikely to step in unless it's worth their while, to break up an identity-theft ring, for example, or to pursue criminals stealing tens of thousands, not hundreds. You need some police agency to at least write up a report, however, to clear your credit or collect insurance, but which one is willing to take the report? Such credit blemishes can stand in the way of getting a mortgage or a car loan.
Shadegg, faced with such complaints, set up a "task force" of state and federal agencies to explore such issues and educate police departments on identity-theft law.
"Even though the state law had been in effect for a number of years and the federal law had been in place for six months or more, Bob Hartle and some of these victims were having the same problem they were having in the past: They walk into a police department and the police would say, 'Nah, if you can't show me actual use of credit cards so I've got credit card fraud or if you can't show me the cashed checks, well, that's not a crime.' We've made it a crime to steal someone's identity even before they use that to gain financial profit."
Some cases do, in fact, get investigated and brought to court. Since 1996, 362 identity-theft cases have been submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, of which 113 went to court, resulting in 96 convictions.
Meanwhile, Bob Hartle has cleared up his own credit problems, but identity theft remains his obsession. Though he still works the factory job he's had for years, he's counseled nearly 600 victims of the crime, many of them referred to him by Shadegg and Smith or even by state and county prosecutors, because Hartle knows better how to lead them through the hoops they have to jump through. He's set up a Web site, www.idscams.com. He's prepared fight-back kits, which he sells for $5, the cost of printing them. In February, he'll teach a course on guarding against identity theft at South Mountain Community College. He dogs reporters.
"Now there is a law," he says, "and they're still giving excuses."