Increase in identity theft cases in Los Angeles
Eddie Kim was looking at his bank statement online last December when he came across something suspicious. There was a $500 cash advance on her new credit card. The problem was that Kim had flown out of the country shortly after applying for the card and had yet to receive it.
“I thought, ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense,'” Kim said. “I called the bank and found out someone had tried to withdraw money using a cash advance and then somehow got approved.”
When Kim returned to her Torrance at home, he discovered that his mailbox had been broken into. He reported the identity theft to his credit card issuer, got a PO box, and changed his information. But the thieves had created a fake email, and a identity theft nightmare was in progress.
Although Kim took steps to protect herself, such as freezing her credit report, the thieves sought to counter every move and attempted to open a Walmart credit card. Months later, he still feels vulnerable.
“I’m pretty sure my information is still there somewhere,” he said.
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Kim’s situation is not unique. Unfortunately for him and many others, cases have exploded in Los Angeles. In February, there were 1,272 reports of identity theft in the city, according to Los Angeles Police Department publicly available data. That was a 104% increase from the number of crimes in the same month last year.
March was worse: 1,437 identity theft reports were the highest monthly total since January 2016.
According to Lt. Manny Martinez of the LAPD’s Commercial Crimes Division, the recent wave of local identity thefts stems from thieves trying to steal information so they can apply for unemployment benefits or EBT cards. The cards allow recipients of government assistance to pay retailers for their purchases.
Martinez said thieves try to take advantage of a lag in the time it takes for victims to notice someone has stolen their identity.
“It’s probably because the California government requires people to file a police report before they can determine it’s not you and cancel the account,” he said.
For a long time, Martinez added, employees of the California Employment Development Department did not conduct thorough credential checks because the goal was to get money quickly to people who needed it. Criminals took advantage of this situation, he said.
“The state is getting better at verification, but for a long time the process was streamlined,” Martinez said.
Unemployment insurance fraud exploded at the start of the pandemic. The state paid at least $20 billion fraudulent benefits since the onset of COVID-19.
The problem has not gone away. In January, Cal Matters reported that the EDD has been plagued with cases of fraud.
It showed up in Los Angeles, said Capt. Alfonso Lopez of the LAPD’s Commercial Crimes Division.
“Identity theft is linked to people returning to work, people going to dinner, break-ins in vehicles and card skimming,” Lopez said. “But this most recent increase, based on our analysis, is due to EBT and EDD theft.”
Thieves use various methods to steal an identity. Some install skimmers and scanners on gas pumps. Others break into vehicles or homes to take credit cards and other forms of identification.
Then there is mail theft, which can take different forms. Sometimes thieves break open mailboxes. Other times they try to retrieve individual mail, hoping to find personal or financial information, Martinez said.
“Some emails may have a date of birth, and other emails may have a social status. [security number],” he said. “They just put it all together, and now they have your profile.”
In the first quarter of 2022, single-family homes were the scene of 43% of identity thefts in the city, according to LAPD data.
Another contributing factor, Martinez said, is that most businesses have reopened and others are increasingly easing restrictions put in place during the pandemic. This presents the possibility of additional victims.
“More people are shopping, they are going to restaurants, they are using their cards,” he said. “People get information about people because it’s more readily available.”
In the first quarter of 2022, West Lake registered 199 reports of identity theft, more than any other neighborhood in Los Angeles. Criminals were also very active in Baldwin/Crenshaw Hills (179 incidents).
The LAPD has a number of proposals to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, including always carrying credit card receipts and never throwing them in a public trash can.
Martinez suggests getting a PO Box and, when using an ATM, covering the keypad while entering the PIN.
how we did it: We reviewed publicly available identity theft data Los Angeles Police Department from January 1, 2016 to March 31, 2022. For the boundaries of the districts, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.
LAPD data only reflects crimes reported to the department, not the number of crimes actually committed. To perform our calculations, we rely on data that the LAPD makes public. The LAPD may update old crime reports with new information or recategorize old reports. These revised reports are not always automatically part of the public database.
Do you have questions about our data? Write to us at [email protected].