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Fighting fraud by the numbers

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Cobb County Sheriff’s Office Investigator T.R. Logue gets information from a fraud victim.


By Gary A. Witte
CobbLine Staff

If you wait at the front desk at the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, it usually doesn’t take long for a fraud victim to visit.

Each has a story. One man sought a job from a Web site that required him to deposit a check to his account and send some of the money back. The check was, of course, bogus.

A sibling looked to press charges against another who took their elderly father’s money. Another man discovered his credit card held $600 in charges he never made. alt

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Investigator Scott Terrill takes phone reports from Cobb County fraud and theft victims.

Identity theft. Complicated housing schemes. Falsified tax returns. Such crimes roll into the office with a tide of paperwork every day.

Just during 2011, the Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division Fraud Unit took on about 7,000 cases from throughout the county, Sgt. Mike Dondelinger said. Some years the number of cases rose closer to 10,000.

These complaints are assigned to the 11 investigators in the unit. If they’re lucky, they might leave the office at 5 p.m. like other professionals, but they often stay late working on cases.

“A lot of times it’s not something you can come back to Monday morning,” Dondelinger said. “We stay until the last victim is gone.”

Unlike other jurisdictions, there are no minimums on how much is stolen before Cobb Sheriff’s investigators will take the report.

It’s a crime where the victim doesn’t always realize they’ve been taken.

With a swipe of a card, people unknowingly deliver their critical information to criminals who will use the credit to buy as many goods as they can. Sometimes, the victim trusts the wrong person with their finances.

“Most people don’t think about identity theft until they’re a victim,” Dondelinger said.

Regular card use can put anyone at risk, although criminals prefer those people with good credit. Thieves no longer have to take the actual card. Using the basic information, they can use a kit to program any magnetic strip, such as one on a gift card, as a clone.

“It can happen anywhere,” Dondelinger said.

With the start of the new year, investigators expect to see more reports of criminals using the identity of others to file false tax returns and pocketing the refunds. Victims often don’t discover this until they file their own returns.

One type of fraud that raises the ire of investigators is exploitation of the elderly. Investigator T.R. Logue, brandishing a thick manila folder, cites a case she’s working on where the relative of a older woman with dementia is apparently writing thousands of dollars checks on her banking account.

“She’s so confused she doesn’t know what’s going on,” Logue said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Logue, who has been with the unit for two years out of the 10 years she’s been with the Sheriff’s Office, said she enjoys investigative work and being able to hold criminals accountable for their actions.

“It’s like a big puzzle,” she said. “Putting the pieces together.”

The background of those assigned to the unit vary. Each has had to work as a uniformed deputy at least a year or two before being recommended by their supervisors for the position.
The unit has investigators with backgrounds in all different fields and sciences, Dondelinger said. There are those who have retired from other careers before coming to the Sheriff’s Office. Some are former military and others have college degrees ranging from law to physics.

Most of the investigators’ time is spent talking to people, whether they are suspects, bank officials or victims. Invariably, they have to ask victims for financial paperwork in order to show a crime took place.

They said people can help deal with these crimes by monitoring their credit and their credit card statements. The three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, are required to give people a free copy of their report every year.

Paperwork is a constant companion to the Fraud Unit investigators, who each are handling an average of 100 open cases at any given time.

The sheer volume presents a challenge and some require more time than others.

“There’s just so many cases to work,” Logue said. “That’s just part of the job...You want to do a good job on all of them.”