Arrests in economic crimes can steal time

For the past four or five years, someone pretending to be Jill Heller has been writing checks from her investment account and making them out to himself. So far, he's cashed in about $130,000.

Heller, a Naples resident, knows who it is. The cops know who it is. But more than eight months after Heller reported the crime, no arrest has been made.

"I was told that it could take a year to investigate," said Heller's brother, Gerry, who helps manage her finances. "Meanwhile, that person is out and free to do whatever they want, including spending the money that they've stolen."

Unlike other crimes, fraud cases can take months or years to investigate, even if authorities have a pretty good idea of who took the money.

"It is frustrating for us. We do want to put suspects in jail and make the victims whole," said Cmdr. Rod Bishop, of the Collier County Sheriff's Office. "But if you want us to get your money back and put the guy in prison, it's going to take a while and it's going to be frustrating."

In cases like check fraud, detectives have to subpoena records from the bank and obtain copies of all the checks. That process alone could take months.

"We only get the information back as quickly as the bank wants to cooperate," said Lt. Shawn Ramsey, who oversees the economic crimes unit at the Lee County Sheriff's Office.

If the checks were cashed at a merchant, they'll have to go to that business, talk to the clerk who took the check and obtain surveillance videos, if they still exists. For cases like credit card fraud, contractor fraud or identity theft, investigators must track purchased goods and prove fraudulent usage of the money.

Which all takes time.

"It's an elephant, and you have to take a small bite out of it at a time," Ramsey said.

Investigators in both Collier and Lee counties said they're also facing an increased case load. In particular, cases of identity thieves filing fraudulent tax returns have bogged authorities down.

"Our case load spiked during the tax return season, of course," Ramsey said. "Even though electronic filing has made it much easier for the average person to file it, it has made it easier for individuals to victimize people."

Detectives in economic crimes might be investigating 50 to 60 cases at any given time, Bishop and Ramsey said.

"It's a juggling act. You're waiting," Bishop said. "You put it in basically a file, and as you get information, you go back to that case."

But after months without resolution, victims sometimes get desperate enough to make a deal with the devil.

After she made her report to the Sheriff's Office, Jill Heller said she persuaded the person who was defrauding her to pay her back on his own accord. He wrote Heller a check for $23,000, but when she took it to the bank, it bounced.

"He has basically disappeared," she said. "What's so frustrating is that he has not been arrested by the police. It's taking forever, it seems like."

But the arrangement Heller made could end up costing her. Negotiating with the suspect is discouraged because it can interfere with law enforcement's work, Bishop said.

"People don't realize," he said. "They've now led themselves down a civil-only path. If it's a verbal or written contract, that kind of trumps the criminal charges.

"Don't try to make deals — that's a no-no. It's one thing that hampers us often. Sometimes we can get around it, but it's depending on what type of fraud it was."

After watching his sister have the majority of her life savings stolen from her, Gerry Heller said he has become disillusioned with the way the justice system deals with economic crimes.

"We need to demand some kind of change. It's just not fair, or appropriate, or helpful," he said.

"And you know, boy, if I was somebody who was thinking about stealing, I probably wouldn't be deterred very much if I knew I could probably get away with it."

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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