Traffic stop led to uncovering of ID theft cases involving as many as 300 Portland area residents
An early morning traffic stop Jan. 3 in West Linn led police to discover a large identity theft operation involving hundreds of victims from the Portland metropolitan area.
Following an early morning traffic stop, West Linn Police arrested 43-year-old Paul Arthur Herbert, of Portland, on several counts of identity theft and possession of a forged instrument. They also arrested 42-year-old Jennifer Lynn Coffman, a suspected transient, on several counts of identity theft and possession of a forged instrument along with warrants out of Multnomah and Clackamas Counties for identification theft, possession of methamphetamine and possession of forged instruments. Both were both lodged at the Clackamas County Jail, according to police.
Information obtained during that initial traffic stop eventually led police to a motel room in Lake Oswego, where they discovered evidence of what appeared to be a large-scale identity theft operation.
"The patrol guys who made the stop put together from an interview that that's where they'd been staying and from other investigative resources, they learned there were possibly drugs in the room," West Linn Police Sergeant Mike Francis said. "They already knew they were dealing with identification thieves and probably more in the hotel room."
A search warrant was obtained for a room at Lake Oswego's Lakeshore Inn, which police said appeared to be paid for using prepaid debit cards purchased with stolen credit cards. There, officers seized a quarter ounce of methamphetamine, stolen property, items paid for using prepaid debit cards purchased with stolen identities and luggage which appears to have been stolen from the Portland airport.
They also recovered a large amount of evidence of identity theft — including forged drivers licenses and credit cards — involving as many as 300 victims from throughout the Portland metropolitan area, including West Linn and Lake Oswego.
According to Francis, the identification thefts appeared to be part of a long-term operation.
"Right now we don't have a real good sense of how long. They've obviously been doing thefts for a long time, that part is clear," Francis said. "They had only been at the hotel for a night or two, so their movement prior to that is unknown. And because they're using fake IDs to check in and pre-paid cards to pay for them, we probably won't be able to determine a record of movement."
Francis added that the identification thefts from West Linn appeared to be new cases that hadn't been reported yet.
"These are all going to be new victims," Francis said. "(The suspects) had a printer with them, they were making IDs as they go."
Police also discovered what appeared to be "source data" that can be used to steal a person's identification.
"It's everything you would need to open a credit card," Francis said. "There's a lot of ways that information gets out — there's the dark web where people purchase information, and other drug users will trade information for drugs.
"So if I worked in a financial institution where I have access and take out a smartphone, capture the screens that have all the info and trade it for a little bit of meth, now you have a data breach."
For those who fear that they might be involved in this string of new cases, Francis advised waiting to hear from police as opposed to calling the department.
"Don't call us because you suspect being a victim or have been a victim," Francis said. "That will take us away from actually being able to contact the victims. We will go through all of the information and names we have, and we will contact people to verify that it's their information and determine if they've been a victim of identification theft."
According to Francis, it is possible that the suspected thieves did not actually use all of the cards and information they possesed.
"With that many identities, and you have two people out doing it, who knows how quickly they burned through all of that information," Francis said. "Some folks might be very lucky."
In general, West Linn and surrounding cities are experiencing an uptick in various forms of theft that are often drug-related, according to Francis.
"It's been a busy week, and we've been noticing a huge increase in mail thefts, a big increase in porch pirates, identification theft is on the rise — and that all correlates with an increase we're seeing with meth on the streets," Francis said. "It's very sad, but that's kind of where we're at."
Police advise residents to consider having important mail delivered to a P.O. box or a work address. They also emphasize that nothing valuable should ever be left in a vehicle, and that residents should consider pulling a free credit report on a quarterly basis to check for fraud.