For the second consecutive year, the number of identity-theft cases assigned to Alexandria police officers grew significantly -- from 78 in 2001 to 114 last year -- and the city continues to have the most documented victims of that category of crime in Virginia.
Alexandria topped the Federal Trade Commission's list of identity-theft victims in the state last year, with 279 people making police reports, followed by Richmond, Arlington, Virginia Beach and Norfolk. But the distinction doesn't mean the problem is worse in Alexandria than anywhere else, just that city police are better at identifying the problem and investigating cases, officials said.
The 46 percent increase in Alexandria reflects better reporting of the problem, which includes crimes more traditionally recorded as credit card fraud or forgery, according to Mary Garrand, the police department's supervisory crime analyst.
While the number of identity theft cases is growing, serious crime overall decreased in the city last year by nearly 12 percent, with all categories below 10-year averages, Garrand said.
In its annual crime statistics released this week, the police department said there were two homicides, 20 rapes, 200 robberies, 486 burglaries, 186 aggravated assaults and 4,220 larcenies last year. The number of auto thefts increased, a spike attributed in part to a rash of late-model Toyota Camry thefts in September and October for which police believe one group of suspects was responsible.
Officials said city initiatives such as the community prosecution program, domestic violence intervention and alcohol and gang interdiction have helped to keep serious crime at lower levels.
"We try to take a 'tipping point' approach to what we do," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. "If we can keep a lid on low-level crime, we see less high-level crime. Eradication of nuisance crime is not going to wipe out robbery, rape and murder, but it certainly helps."
Arlington County crime statistics for last year have not been compiled, a police spokesman said.
Meanwhile, identity theft is proving to be a difficult crime to document and crack nationwide, officials said. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that has skyrocketed as the Internet has enabled transmission of personal information worldwide in a matter of seconds and made it accessible to a much wider audience.
The General Assembly passed legislation this year that not only acknowledges identity theft as a growing problem but also attacks it by limiting use of Social Security numbers on identification cards and other public documents.
"It is becoming such a big problem as technology gets more entrenched in everybody's lives," said Les E. Lauziere, a criminal investigator who works in the computer crimes and technology section of the Virginia Attorney General's Office.
Unlike the Alexandria police department, not all law enforcement agencies investigate when a victim reports, for example, that his or her credit card was just used by someone in Barcelona, Spain, well outside their jurisdictions, Lauziere said.
Because not all cases are investigated or are instead classified by traditional labels, the number of documented identity thefts represents the tip of the iceberg, Lauziere said. If someone becomes a victim, he or she should file a report with the local police department and immediately contact credit bureaus, he said.
Sgt. Robyn Nichols, who oversees Alexandria's white-collar crime unit and advises people to shred credit-card offers, canceled checks and other sensitive documents, said state law allows victims to report such crimes occurring out of state in jurisdictions where they live.
Anyone can become a victim, even police officers, said Nichols, who should know. She learned last month that someone was using her credit card number to make a big purchase at a Circuit City store in Kansas, even though she still had the card in her possession.
Because identity theft oftens occurs outside the jurisdiction where the victim lives, Nichols said city police have joined a federal Secret Service task force investigating the problem in the Washington region. Alexandria police have been hampered in their efforts because their computer-crime unit was dissolved in the last year, she said.
"I think there are a lot more [victims] out there not making reports," Nichols said. "It's gotten so bad. It's just such a nightmare for people. Sometimes, people don't even realize it until they go buy a house."
Nichols didn't know she was a victim until the bank called because the transaction in Kansas did not match her spending habits. "I'd rather have my car stolen than my identity stolen," she said.