The problem of identity theft, credit and debit card abuse and forgeries is spreading throughout the country — and it’s the same in Stephenville.

The Stephenville Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) is swamped with such complaints and spending a lot of valuable time and resources investigating them, according to Lieutenant Don Miller.

“Unfortunately, these crimes are relatively simple to commit,” Miller said. “But they are tedious to solve.”

According to the United States Department of Justice’s Web site (www.usdoj.gov), identity theft predators use social security numbers, bank account and credit card numbers and other identifying information to assume a person’s identity and run up debt in the victim’s name.

In 1998, Congress passed a law making identity theft a federal offense. The move was prompted after a convicted felon assumed another person’s identity and racked up more than $100,000 of credit card debt, purchased homes, motorcycles and handguns, and even filed for bankruptcy in the victim’s name. The perpetrator taunted his victim by telephone, saying he could “continue to pose as the victim as long as he wanted because identity theft was not a federal crime at the time,” according to the Web site.

In the end, the victim spent an estimated $15,000 to restore their credit while the suspect paid no restitution to the victim and spent only a brief time in jail.

Locally, the crime of identification theft is so prevalent that one investigator, Det. Sgt. Orlando Gaitan, has been assigned to work the cases full-time, but even that’s not enough to keep up with the case load and Miller said the department is considering assigning another detective to help.

Gaitan said he is currently working on 45 cases involving Stephenville residents who became victims of some type of identification theft.

He said perpetrators of these crimes often get identifying information by committing home and vehicle burglaries. A surge in recent vehicle break-ins where purses, wallets and other personal effects were stolen has sent the number of I.D. thefts skyrocketing.

“We recently had 12 car burglaries within a two week span,” Gaitan said. “And every one of those vehicles were left unlocked.”

Solving these cases takes a lot of tenacious police work and a little luck. Gaitan said he spends countless hours following paper trails and interviewing witnesses who might help identify a suspect.

On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, Alan Williamson, an alert, off-duty detective solved a case after a man and woman ahead of him in the checkout line aroused his suspicion.

Gaitan said Williamson recognized the man as a suspect in a separate case and began watching them. When he noticed the woman was paying with a single check - that there was no checkbook present - and that she seemed nervous, he edged closer. He read the name listed on the check and called it in to the police department.

It just so happened that at that very moment, the owner of the check was at the police department filing a complaint. Her purse had recently been stolen from her car.

Unfortunately, not all cases are that easy to solve, but people can do a lot to protect themselves against becoming victims, Gaitan said.

Businesses could also do more to help cut down on the problem by doing a more efficient job in identifying check writers and credit card users.

“I am in favor of businesses thumb printing and checking the identification of every person who passes through,” he said. “Unfortunately, many businesses hesitate to do this because they are worried about upsetting the customer. But I can promise you that if that same customer became a victim of identity theft or credit card abuse they would be in favor of it.”

Because no matter how much extra work these cases put on law enforcement, the burden that victims must bear is far greater.

“These victims go through a long process to straighten these messes out,” Gaitan said. “They have to deal with credit card agencies and check verification companies to fix their credit. It’s not an easy process.”

SARA VANDEN BERGE covers courts, law enforcement, and business and political issues for the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at sara.vandenberge@empiretribune.com. Her work number is 968-2379, ext. 240.