Aurora city council to consider ordinance strengthening penalties against identity thieves

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AURORA | A panel of Aurora City Council members Thursday moved forward with a proposal that would stiffen local penalties for people found with credit cards or identification documents they’re unauthorized to have.

Members of the city’s public safety policy committee unanimously signed off on an proposed city ordinance that would make it a municipal crime to be found with someone else’s credit card, debit card, money order, or identity card “without permission or lawful authority,” according to the proposed language.

Aurora Police Sergeant Daniel Courtenay told council members instances of identity theft have continued to increase across the city in recent years, although the city can’t technically prosecute people found in possession of another person’s bank cards or IDs.

“For all intents and purposes, the only reason a person would possess another person’s financial device or identification card is to commit identity theft or to aid in the commission of other crimes,” Courtenay wrote in a memo to officials.

The Aurora Police Department’s economic crimes unit reviewed about 2,170 cases in each of the past two years, according to Courtenay.

“About 90 percent of those are either straight identity theft or identity theft-related crime,” he said.

The economic crimes unit received about 2,300 cases in 2016, with about one third of those cases stemming from credit and debit card fraud, according to 2018 city documents.

The new proposal would technically allow city attorneys to prosecute people found in unauthorized possession of the following documents belonging to someone else: driver’s licenses, government-issued IDs, social security cards, passports, credit cards, debit cards, banking cards, electronic fund transfer cards, guaranteed check cards, checks, negotiable order of withdrawals, share drafts, or money orders.

Courtenay wrote that existing state laws used to prosecute people found in possession of another person’s credit card, debit card, or ID document are seldom used because they are misdemeanor offenses and often overlooked by an overloaded court system.

“With the overburdened state courts, these misdemeanors are not likely to be accepted for prosecution or are quickly diminished in plea agreements, in favor of higher felony crimes,” Courtenay wrote.

The new ordinance would allow city prosecutors to penalize petty perpetrators before they can become serial offenders, according to Nancy Rodgers, deputy city attorney.

“The municipal court has the ability to focus on the small cases,” Rodgers said. “I think the idea is, hopefully, our prosecutors will have the resources to stop that person before they escalate to the 100 ID kind of theft.”

The new local law would dovetail a similar ordinance council members passed last year, which made it illegal to actually use a fraudulent bank card within Aurora city limits. But that measure, intended to update the city’s check fraud law from the late 1970s, was only a portion of the law enforcement equation, Rodgers said.

“Police were catching people in possession of cards, and they knew they were going to use them, but they didn’t want to wait until that crime occurred,” she said.

The new ordinance would make it illegal to even possess a card or identity document without provable consent from the owner.

If approved by the full city council, people found in violation of the new ordinance would face the standard penalty for all municipal crimes: up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,650, Rodger said.

The ordinance includes a safety valve provision that would exonerate people who are found with someone else’s documents but can prove they have tried to return them to their rightful owner in good faith.

“In the extremely rare instance(s), when a person truly does find another’s financial documents or identification cards, and has taken steps to return the documents to its rightful owner, he or she will not face prosecution,” Courtenay wrote.

Aurora police believe the uptick in identity theft cases has contributed to a bump in overall theft across the city.

“APD is also seeing a great increase in crimes like larceny from vehicles, thefts, and burglaries committed strictly for the purpose of identity theft,” Courtenay wrote.

More than 10 percent of Americans over age 16 had experienced some sort of identity theft as of 2016, according to the latest available comprehensive data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Complaints of identity theft doubled during the first five years of the current decade, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

While overall property crime in Aurora dropped about 1 percent between 2016 and 2017, crimes related to theft were up 2.4 percent in the city in the first three quarters of last year, according to crime statistics compiled by the Aurora Police Department.

There were about 180 more motor vehicle thefts in Aurora in the first nine months of 2018 than in 2017, according to crime reports. Over the same time, there were about 65 fewer burglaries and 80 more larceny crimes.

The full city council will now discuss the proposed ordinance at an upcoming council study session.