When a woman in Pennsylvania reported that someone was using her credit card to buy pizzas in Forest Lake, police tracked the deliveries to a local apartment.
It seemed like a simple case to solve.
While at the apartment, however, they found substantial evidence of Internet identity theft. The investigation quickly ballooned to involve a five-state crime ring that had victimized hundreds of people. Forest Lake police became immersed in more than 400 hours of detective work, and now several local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working together to find all the crooks.
"Law enforcement has taken a whole new turn, where we're investigating more identity theft and computer-related crimes," said Forest Lake Police Chief Rick Peterson, who cited the case as a textbook example of what Minnesota's law enforcement agencies face these days. "Those crimes have just really increased, not only in Forest Lake but all over out there."
The acceleration of financial crimes on the Internet -- where crooks wheel and deal almost at will -- is stretching Minnesota's police agencies to their limits.
"These are ongoing crimes that are not only local, not only statewide and nationwide, but some are, indeed, worldwide," said Jeff Long, Edina's police chief and chairman of the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force. "They're getting more complex, they're getting more difficult to prosecute."
Often short of resources for extensive online investigations, police agencies are pooling resources, working in partnerships with private companies and scouring their departments for computer buffs who can track criminal activity.
"Sometimes, these cases can explode with numerous victims," Peterson said.
About a decade ago, crooks began taking the Internet by storm. It was common for them to steal credit card and Social Security numbers and hide behind the identities of people, living and dead.
Law enforcement authorities say the problem has worsened in recent years as criminals discover new ways to bilk people all over the world with a keystroke. Today's practice of fencing stolen goods on eBay.com and Craigslist is a far cry from the days when neighborhood crooks tried to sell bicycles and other stolen goods at local pawnshops.
In one recent case, someone in Nigeria set up a phony Web page offering houses for rent in Washington County, said County Attorney Pete Orput. To lend authentication, the thief posted a photo of a Stillwater house and swiped a resident's name.
The hook? Prospective renters were told to send money for "down payment" on the rent.
Police are fighting back
"It's been frustrating for all of us in law enforcement that the crooks seem to be getting so sophisticated that it's difficult for us to keep them accountable these days," said Orput, who's barnstorming the county on a campaign against identity theft. "It's been really taxing for all police departments, and my office, to stay of top of it."
Police fight back by pooling resources and often rely on special units at larger departments, said Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. Police know the challenges that await when victims report computer-related crimes, he said.
"Obviously, there's an expectation that something's going to be done," Flaherty said. "To do nothing is not an option. They're complicated investigations because you have a whole shopping list of fraud crimes that take place on the Internet."
While a growing number of Internet criminals steal money, others soil reputations.
In a recent social media case, a 27-year-old Woodbury man was charged with 13 felony counts of identity theft after allegedly duping young women into becoming Facebook friends and then stealing their photos to post on sex-oriented websites. The suspect, Timothy Noirjean, goes to trial in May.
Police agencies still break up bar fights, serve subpoenas and arrest drunk drivers. But the Internet has allowed even local crimes to go global.
Peterson expects Internet crime to tax police even more as criminals find new ways to stay ahead of investigations.
"It is definitely a new era for law enforcement, there's no doubt about it," he said.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles