By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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People call Manzo all the time after they've tracked down the store where fraudulent purchases took place — $5,000 at Macy's, for example — and the victim says he knows that the store has surveillance video of the criminal. But investigators with the Houston Police Department rarely take the time — a waste of time, Manzo calls it — to go get surveillance video of identity thieves in a store, because it doesn't do any good.
"I have to explain to [victims] that I agree, a picture is worth a thousand words, but in terms of solving an identity theft crime, it's limited," Manzo says. "If I send that picture to Crime Stoppers, I'm not going to get any luck. They have tons and tons of cases involving murderers and rapists, and I'm going to ask them to air someone's picture that used Joe Smith's credit card? It's not going to sell in the media."
But in rare identity theft cases, such as when the thief is a white kid from the suburbs, the media jumps all over it.
In 2006, Jason Carpenter, a teenager from Clear Lake, was sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison for a massive identity theft scheme that he called "fun and easy." The crime made national headlines.
"Being a young, white man, being that it was a white-collar crime, I wasn't scared of the consequences because I thought it would probably be probation," Carpenter told CNN. "I knew right from wrong, and I knew this was wrong; I just like to see how much I can get away with."
Carpenter admitted he was a criminal, but, "I'm not a major criminal. This was a hobby."
The hobby was stealing credit card numbers from AOL users, and with the help of another young man in Florida, buying loads of computers and other electronics.
Shauna Dunlap, the Houston FBI agent in charge of the investigation, says that Carpenter and accomplices eventually bought about $2 million worth of stuff using fake credit cards made with the identities of more than 1,000 people.
Carpenter and crew shipped the stolen items to a vacant house in Houston with a note on the door that said, "This is a deaf residency. Please leave the packages if no one answers." No one ever answered, and more often than not, the delivery men complied.
Carpenter and his associates bought big-ticket items with the fake credit cards, including a $6,000 four-wheeler, a $6,000 Jet Ski, an engagement ring that was worth more than $9,000, and a $1,000 Pomeranian.
By the time he was busted, Carpenter was working with nine other men and women in several different states to produce fake cards and driver's licenses and to launder money.
The FBI was tipped to Carpenter after a deputy constable with the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable's Office on regular patrol witnessed a delivery man drop off a package at a house he knew was vacant. The deputy looked at past crimes in the neighborhood and saw that Carpenter had vandalized a house there as a kid.
The deputy also saw that the FBI had a prior investigation on Carpenter, because of "a bomb threat thing," Dunlap says, so the deputy called the feds.
She continued the investigation because her job at the time was working domestic terrorism, and Carpenter, she says, was an admitted anarchist.
Investigating and prosecuting identity thieves takes so long that few complaints end in arrests.
"A lot of victims don't understand that in order to successfully identify the person who committed [the crimes], we have to put together a very good and solid paper trail," Manzo says. "They want us to solve the cases in an hour, or at least overnight, but that's not the way it is."
Identity theft investigators often need bank records that require a grand jury subpoena, and it takes about six weeks to get the records. Identity thieves also commonly open fraudulent cell phone accounts, and to the victims, finding out who opened the accounts seems easy enough.
"People say, 'Well, you can request phone records. They'll give the information to law enforcement but they won't give it to me,'" Manzo says. "They're not lying, but we have to subpoena the records. It's very time-consuming and frustrating."
Then police have to persuade a prosecutor to take the case.
"We're aware here that when someone is killed, that's an important case," Brewer says. "Our cases are important to us, but we realize there are levels of importance, and our cases aren't murder."
If a crime can be filed as an organized-crime case — three or more people working together — the district attorney is likely to take it. Also, "if the victim is in the Army serving our country in Iraq, that's really going to piss us off."
Other than that, there's no single common characteristic that ensures they'll prosecute an identity case.
Brewer subpoenaed online bookstores like Barnes & Noble for information the sites captured during the purchases. That led to an Internet service provider and another grand jury subpoena for more information, including a mailing address, which led to a physical address.