There's a growing chance that your credit card and bank information could end up in the hands of violent street gangs, who federal authorities say are moving into the lucrative business of identity theft -- a non-violent crime once the purview of low-level scammers.
Identity theft was found right along with gun running and drug trafficking in Fort Lauderdale's year-long undercover investigation “Operation Smoking Gun,” an effort that lead to the arrest Thursday of 87 alleged gang members and more expected soon.
US Attorney Jeff Sloman expressed concern Friday about "the increasing violence resulting from identity theft operations." Operation Smoking Gun didn't start out looking for identity theft; it initially focused on rounding up gang members involved in guns and drugs.
But officers found so much more, a "treasure trove of guns, drugs, and identity theft instruments," according to Sloman.
There were 302 firearms; 6,035 prescription pills; 4 kilos of cocaine; 7,762 ecstasy pills; 5 kilos of marijuana; $5,000 in counterfeit cash; and this: more than 300 names related to stolen identities.
"I think it speaks to the evolution of crime in society today,” Sloman said. In a Secret Service crime scene video from 2006 of an identity theft operation involving a different case -- separate from this year's operation -- a room in Miami is shown full of names, bank account info, and credit card machines.
Federal investigators are ramping up enforcement, but the problem is vast now. Police say fast food restaurants have become hot spots for one scam in which credit cards are secretly swiped and recorded, then the data is sold for $5 or $10 each to bigger syndicates.
"You have people,” Sloman said, “prior convicted felons who realize that it may be easier to make money stealing somebody's identity and banging out credit cards than it is going in and holding up a 7-11. And that's unfortunately the sad postscript to all this."
The public should keep three things in mind: When you hand your credit or debit card to someone, don't let it out of sight. Keep close track of your account activity. Or do what one detective told us he does, and use cash.