Created to combat the rising number of identity thieves and other white-collar crooks, the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force is operating on a fifth of the budget it once had, according to a draft legislative report to be filed next month.
As a result of those cuts, the task force is investigating and charging far fewer individuals than it used to. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who is on the task force’s advisory board, says this is putting Minnesotans at risk of more sophisticated identity theft.
The task force was created in 2000 to investigate white-collar crimes in Minnesota with an emphasis on organized financial crimes. In 2007, its yearly budget was close to $1.5 million in state funding, matching grants and supplemental funding, aimed at expanding its operations to outstate Minnesota.
But for the past four years the task force has operated on $300,000 a year. A federal grant that supplemented the task force budget in 2013 is due to expire in 2015, and the task force says it will not be able to continue its current operations “without making significant changes.”
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said it is considering cutting salary reimbursements to investigators to manage the coming cuts.
Last year, task force investigations led to 86 individuals being charged with 128 crimes, down from 301 individuals charged with 2,203 crimes in 2007.
The charges involved cases of identity theft, counterfeit checks and check forgery, credit application fraud, mortgage fraud, theft by swindle and other financial crimes.
Drew Evans, BCA assistant superintendent, said the Department of Public Safety will not seek more money for the task force until it holds a strategic planning meeting in the coming months.
“We really need to understand what the task force should look like moving forward and how best to address fraud,” he said.
Lesch said the reductions to the task force resulted from across-the-board budget cuts, not any drop in financial crime.
“The sexier stuff like specific crimes against persons like assault, sex crimes or drugs, those are the meat and potatoes that matter for policymakers,” Lesch said. “Unfortunately, the financial crimes are nuanced.”
Identity theft complaints in Minnesota increased by 30 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to complaint data provided by the Federal Trade Commission.
In 2012, the task force was the lead agency on Operation Starburst, which won national recognition by breaking up a fraud ring led by a California man, Julian Okeayninneh. The ring used information stolen from 500 individuals to defraud banks of more than $50 million.
Last year, the task force investigated a disbarred attorney and his partner who allegedly impersonated bank employees and approached homeowners facing foreclosure. They told the homeowners that if they sent payments directly to them, that could help delay or stop the foreclosure. The investigation continues, said Patrick Henry, the task force commander.
Lesch said if the task force cannot continue doing its job effectively, consumers will pay.
“These rings operate on the edge of trends,” he said. “If no one is busted, the scams will get more sophisticated and larger.”
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