I.D. crimes plague Woodbury, Twin Cities

Kristine Mellor usually didn’t leave her purse in the car. But as she locked the doors and walked into the gym one morning, someone was watching her.
To Mellor’s shock, when she came back to the busy parking lot after her workout, she found her car’s driver side window had been smashed. Her purse - which on a fluke that day contained her driver’s license, check card, credit card and family’s social security cards - was gone.
What followed was a nightmare that she says she’d never wish on anybody.
That day, the thieves wrote a check to themselves from Mellor for $300 and cashed it at a local bank with no problem, though she had warned the bank that her identity had been stolen. Then they got bold and ordered their own checks with Mellor’s name and account number, and passed for Mellor all over Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, including Woodbury. After numerous hotel stays and shopping sprees over several months, the thieves’ parking-lot heist totaled over $11,000.
But the biggest headache has been trying to clear her name. With each bad check the thieves write, Mellor has to mail a police report to the collection agency to exempt herself from paying, a task which has amounted to a mound of paperwork.
“It seemed very organized to me, that they could do it so quickly and make counterfeit checks,” says Mellor, 39, of the thieves. “It’s been a stressful situation.” Police departments from several Minnesota and Wisconsin cities have gotten involved in the case but don’t have any solid leads yet on the criminals.

I.D. fraud on the rise
Cases like Mellor’s are the reason a special team at the Woodbury police department is trying to get the word out about identity fraud.
Capt. Mike Pepin of the Woodbury police department says Woodbury, along with other Twin Cities suburbs, have recently seen a steady increase in identity crimes.
“There is more evidence of this kind of thing going on all the time,” Pepin says. A statement released from the police department calls it the “fastest-growing crime of the past decade.”
One of the reasons for the increase is that the power of identity is driving today’s commercial system more and more, he says. Cash is rarely used anymore in transactions; credit cards and checks, which are linked to their holder’s identity, are now the preferred way to pay.
The Internet is another major accomplice, Pepin says. It puts people’s personal information, literally, at their fingertips - and the fingertips of thieves looking to rip it off. It doesn’t help that purchases made over the Internet are done anonymously, not face to face with cashiers, which means anyone could be the body behind the account number on the computer screen.
But the most common way for an identity to be stolen is through a briefcase, wallet or purse theft. As in Mellor’s case, an identity criminal will typically break the window of a car in the parking lot of a busy shopping center, grab what they’re looking for and flee, Pepin says.
“It’s unfortunate, but you can’t consider your locked car safe,” Pepin warns. This past holiday season, as shoppers bustled about, the Woodbury police saw a spike in car break-ins related to identity fraud.
Other thieves are more daring and will grab a checkbook when the owner places it on the counter at a store to pay, Pepin says. Women often leave their purses in the seat of their grocery cart and walk several feet away to grab an item, which makes an easy steal for a watchful thief.
Mail theft is another typical route for identity thieves to obtain personal information, says Arnie Baker, Woodbury police investigator.
“We all provide ready information for thieves in our mail,” Baker says. “We have signed checks in clearly marked envelopes as we pay our bills. Identity fraud criminals use the information from these checks to make false checks and fraudulent identification cards.”
“When you put mail in your mailbox and put the red flag up, you tell criminals, ‘I’ve got outgoing mail in my mailbox, come get it before the postman picks it up,’” Pepin adds. He suggests mailing bills and other letters that contain personal information directly from the post office.
What adds to the problem is that victims of identity fraud usually don’t know their identity has been stolen until weeks after the crime has occurred. They discover they’ve been victimized only after their monthly credit card statement arrives and they see the fraudulent charges the thief has racked up.
“The criminal has had 30 days to do what they want with the person’s account,” Pepin says.

Identity protection
But there are things residents can do to protect themselves from this fast-growing crime, Baker and Pepin say. They offer the following suggestions:
• Keep your purse, wallet or checkbook on your person and well protected when out in public. Only carry the bare necessities. Don’t keep multiple credit cards, a bundle of cash or social security cards in your wallet.
• Never leave a purse, wallet, checkbook or briefcase containing personal information about you, your accounts or anyone else’s identity in an unattended vehicle.
• At work, keep personal items protected or locked up. Many thefts occur in workplaces, especially if the public is regularly invited into the site. “It doesn’t mean you don’t trust your coworkers, it just means you don’t know whose going to come in,” Pepin says.
• Pick up your home delivered mail as soon as possible after delivery. Especially watch for new checks and credit cards, or card applications, which thieves can start using immediately.
Mellor has learned her lesson: she says no longer leaves her purse in the car nor carries multiple forms of I.D.
“I know how quickly something like that can happen,” Mellor says. “They can break a window easily. What I’ve learned is to leave those important items home and not leave your purse in the car. They know what they’re doing it seems.”

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