Lawrence police detectives last April began noticing a pattern involving break-ins to women's homes in which financial cards and information were stolen -- many times the haul unbeknownst to the victims who only reported the burglaries. Those credit cards and the such then were surfacing in Topeka as means to buy up gift cards that quickly were used to purchase items. Investigators recognized the pattern several times during a five- month period and eventually were able to trace the crimes back to a Topeka man who now is in custody awaiting trial in Shawnee and Douglas counties. Topeka police Maj. Jerry Stanley recently declined to release the man's name while announcing the case because the man had yet to be adjudicated. Stanley, commander of the criminal investigations division, used the case as an example of what law enforcement grapples with in the complex and burgeoning realm of financial transgressions. "It has become one of the most prolific crimes we face these days," Stanley said. Topeka police Lt. Joe Perry this past week said that as technology progresses, financial crimes stay in lockstep with the innovations and therefore become easier to commit. Those types of misdeeds carry more bang for the buck than typical blue-collar crime because of a lesser inherent risk to the criminals, Perry said, as in "I'm not facing someone with a gun saying, 'Give me your money.' " There isn't as much potential for getting hurt or caught in the act. "The penalties are much less because it's a nonperson crime. It's a property crime," Perry said. "So if you get caught and you have no criminal history, it's presumptive probation. And the bad guys know it." In the home burglaries and gift cards case, detectives worked to trace elements of the individual crimes back to the alleged perpetrator to build an overall case because that is what the law requires, Stanley said. Doing so takes "a lot of man hours," he said, which is typical of solving financial cases. Perry, who is in charge of financial and property crimes and auto thefts, said the case is unique in that the suspect lived in one city and specifically went to another town to do burglaries before returning to commit financial crimes. Carrying out separate offenses as part of an overall plot in different jurisdictions can muddle an investigation and create hurdles to drawing connections, he said. However, the capital city most often sees financial crimes involving stolen routing numbers or checks, Perry said. For example, a criminal steals a checkbook, which often contains many checks. The criminal is a drug abuser and needs a fix, so he hands over some blank checks to a dealer. Of course, the criminal keeps a few blank checks to spend or write to himself to cash. Perhaps the dealer keeps a couple but passes a few to other people who in turn use the basic information to print more checks or make online purchases or even open a credit card account. "It balloons out real fast," Perry said, noting financial crimes very rarely involve just one person. Criminals altering checks, such as whiting out a name to replace it with their own or adding in a column of numbers, is another occurrence. Manufacturing checks that are written off as business expenses charged to such entities as fast food chains pop up, as well. In many instances, days or weeks pass before a person or business becomes aware of fraudulent charges and reports it to local authorities. Perry said the numerous layers of a case that develop in the span before a financial crime is reported and being able to launch an investigation in a timely fashion can prove trying. "It's mind-boggling sometimes trying to figure it out," he said. The Topeka Police Department assigns four detectives to financial crime cases and a fifth is stationed in a computer forensics lab, spending 40 hours a week downloading computers in a methodical way to glean information. Perry said the department could assign 50 detectives and still be busy because of the complex nature of the crimes. Financial crimes in 2012 totaled 847 reported instances, according to the police department. A year ago saw a slight increase to 870 reports. Stanley said there were 130 assigned cases in 2013. As far as securing greater penalties for financial transgressions, Perry isn't hopeful for the foreseeable future. If a person runs up to someone to take their money and shoots them, that criminal has proven to be a danger to society through a demonstrated act of hurting someone. If a criminal picks someone's pocket and then makes a bunch of checks, there isn't an imminent danger to society. "It's going to be hard-pressed to get stiffer (penalties) for nonperson crimes when you're competing for (limited jail) space with the guys who are actually stabbing and punching and shooting people," Perry said.
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