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GBI unit takes aim at identity thieves

POSTED: August 21, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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It’s a silent, often faceless crime that can ruin lives.

Identity theft, in which a person’s stolen personal and financial information is used to obtain credit cards, print checks or even cover medical procedures, continues to grow as a major crime in the U.S., with Georgia ranked seventh in the nation per capita. In 2006, identity theft cost Georgians an estimated $25 million. Since 2002, there have been more than 34,000 cases reported in Georgia, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"Once someone’s got your information, there’s a lot of potential there," said Terry Sosebee, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. "Imagination is the only limit."

Sosebee heads up the GBI’s new identity theft unit, which opened its seven-agent office in Conyers earlier this month. The unit was created through legislation signed in May by Gov. Sonny Perdue, transferring investigative duties from his office of consumer affairs to the GBI.

"The growth of identity theft in Georgia has been something the governor’s been concerned about," said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley. "As this became a bigger problem, he decided to move it over to a task force."

The model comes from other GBI task forces that have had success with focuses on methamphetamine and Internet crimes against children.

"It’s very clear that when the GBI is given the resources and focus to narrow on a specific issue, they have an amazing ability to get the job done," Brantley said.

Sosebee’s agents will field calls and look into individual cases, with a concentration on busting large-scale identity theft rings that may involve numerous offenders and dozens of stolen identities. Personal information can be stolen through computer hacking, theft from mailboxes or even Dumpster diving. It’s the new unit’s job to put together complex, paper puzzles and track down those who are often meticulous in covering their tracks.

"Everyone thinks of it as being a white-collar crime, and there is a lot of paperwork," Sosebee said. "But the unit is operated much like a plainclothes, covert operation in that we do a lot of surveillance work. It’s set up along the lines of a drug unit. We spend a lot of time in the field; it’s not just sitting at a computer and talking on the phone."

The new law signed by Perdue gives the GBI "original jurisdiction" to investigate identity theft cases. In the past, the GBI could only investigate crimes at the request of local sheriff’s and police departments. The law also gives the GBI new, limited subpoena powers for some financial documents.

Local law enforcement agencies continue to have the authority to investigate identity theft as well.

Previously, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs was the state agency which handled big identity theft cases. But with four investigators in its criminal unit, the office had its hands full.

"It’s kind of like a bottomless pit," said Office of Consumer Affairs spokesman Bill Cloud. "The numbers, the types, the sophistication. We think we did a good job considering the resources, but we certainly endorse the governor’s decision to put it in the GBI and put additional resources into it."

Initially the plan was to fund the new unit with a budget of $1 million. But with cutbacks on all levels of state spending, the unit will have to "build up" to that number over time, Brantley said.

One position — a forensic computer specialist — remains open for now.

Besides making cases through investigations that can take months, the new identity theft unit is assuming the role of educator for both local law enforcement and the public at large, Sosebee said.

He noted that the Federal Trade Commission estimates that 65 percent of identity theft victims never report the crimes to law enforcement. "The reality is, we’re probably not going to be able to solve every crime that comes along, but all we can do is try once it’s brought to our attention," Sosebee said. "If you never know about it, it’s very hard to take action."

Noting that the state has gone from 12th to seventh place in identity theft during a four-year span, Sosebee said Georgia is "going in the wrong direction."

"But hopefully by educating folks and working these cases, we’ll reduce those numbers."



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