Green Dot scams, ID theft pose challenge for police


BY ZACH WILLIAMS  |  As overall crime continues to drop in the East Village and citywide, felony assaults and robberies have spiked in recent weeks in the Ninth Precinct, while identity thefts targeting local residents especially continue to challenge police resources.

The March 18 meeting of the Ninth Precinct Community Council focused heavily on such crimes, which police said are best combated with a mixed deployment of public awareness and proactive policing.

In the 28 days prior to the meeting, felony assaults and robberies in the precinct increased by 25 percent and 37.5 percent, respectively, compared to the same period last year — a stark contrast with neighboring precincts, which have not experienced such a spike.

Over all, crime in the Ninth Precinct has decreased 21 percent compared to last year, according to police records.

Identity thefts in the area, meanwhile, take on forms new and old, including a scheme growing nationally in prominence that follows a common script.

A call or e-mail placed to an unsuspecting victim will claim to be from entities such as utility companies or government agencies. Threats follow the announcement that an account is overdue and that without immediate payment, consequences will ensue, including additional charges, cessation of services or even deportation.

One local resident at the March 18 meeting said she was contacted by someone purporting to represent an Upstate city where she supposedly drove afoul of traffic laws.

“They have these emblems on it to make it look real,” said Linda Giser of suspect correspondence. “They are trying every which way.”

A quick trip to her next-door neighbor on E. Fifth St., the Ninth Precinct, let her know that the inquiry was “worthless,” yet another attempt, she said, to steal her identity.

Deputy Inspector John Cappelmann, the precinct’s commanding officer, said a similar, so-called “Green Dot scam” earlier that day targeted locals through the impersonation of a Con Edison employee. Separately, two Romanian nationals were arrested March 6 for stealing credit card information from local A.T.M.’s.

Green Dot credit cards, available for purchase in many convenience stores, allow the transfer of money through the use of a set of numbers, making it difficult to trace the trails of such perpetrators. Cappelmann said at the meeting that trends in local crime are moving away from property crimes, such as burglary, to new opportunities for thievery created by digital technology.

“We have seen a large increase in ID theft,” Cappelmann said of the pattern in recent years.

Impersonated parties, such as the I.R.S., have begun public outreach efforts informing citizens that such correspondence does not follow their protocols, such as, for example, the use of e-mail.

Incidents of larceny rose while other categories fell in recent weeks as thieves are turning their attention to finding cash through inattentive A.T.M. users and residents who unknowingly give their personal information over the phone or through e-mail. Recent schemes have included Green Dot scams that follow a common routine increasingly familiar to local residents.

While police try to curb a local prevalence of the growing national problem, one controversial police tactic has helped curb the recent spate of strong-arm robberies and assaults. A recent string of robberies in the area ended after police officers stopped a suspicious-looking youth and examined his school ID. After a description matching the 15-year-old in connection with a robbery reached the officers, his identity was known to police, who later arrested and incarcerated him.

The tactic of street interrogation known as stop and frisk arouses strong criticism from civil rights groups. However, it does lead to the capture of criminals, said Cappelmann.

“You see the same people commit crimes over and over again… . In this case, it was a productive stop,” he said.

But other suspects remain at large, including one who regularly operates in the southwestern area of the precinct near the intersection of Broadway and E. Houston St. The man, believed to be 35 to 40 years old and roughly 5 feet tall, is being sought in connection with four separate incidents.

Among his known targets was a Chase bank A.T.M. where a security camera caught an image of his face, police said.

Such a danger is only one reason for people to be extra-careful while withdrawing cash. Identity thieves are also known to linger in such places in hopes of compiling personal information or installing small cameras for the same purpose. Police conceded at the meeting that preventing and solving identity crimes can be difficult given their volume and the elusiveness of the suspects.

But awareness and a sense of when a normal situation is slightly amiss can protect people from further risk, said Sergeant Carty, who spoke about identity theft at the meeting.

“A gut feeling is worth a million dollars,” he said.