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Hunting identity thieves -- alone, one at a time

By Nadia Kounang
CNN

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Matthew Boyden often lurks near commercial mailboxes to nab identity thieves.

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Fraud
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Crime, Law and Justice

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- Matthew Boyden doesn't deliver the mail; he investigates it, with a .40-caliber pistol strapped to his waist and an MP-5 machine gun within easy reach.

He is one of the nearly 2,000 U.S. postal inspectors who fight mail fraud, the use of the mail to commit crimes. In the past six years, Boyden has arrested more than 300 people, many of them identity thieves who steal personal information in order to loot bank accounts, launder stolen checks or milk credit cards for cash. (View the prevalence of identity theft in the United States)

Growing up in suburban Dallas between a police station and a National Guard armory, a career in law enforcement seemed to "just make sense," Boyden said, and after a stint in the Air Force, he joined the Waxahachie, Texas, police department. But the 24/7 grind of daily beat work began to take its toll. "You get older, the crooks stay younger," said Boyden, 36.

Six years ago, he traded the high-speed chases for a job as a federal agent investigating high-dollar frauds with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Houston. While the office and desk are roomier than his old patrol car, the work is remarkably similar.

"It is kind of done how it was done in narcotics," he said. "You want to find their stash," which is usually credit reports, bank statements, fraudulent checks, and credit card applications.

Boyden carefully selects the cases he pursues. "I don't touch anything that doesn't get into the millions," he told "CNN Presents" as part of a documentary on identity theft. "The better crooks victimize wholesale."

Through experience, Boyden has developed an eye for the big crimes. He looks for unusual patterns such as a New York bank account with a Houston address related to a victim in Wisconsin. "Chances are that this isn't the only case connected to this name."

Starting with just a stolen check or a suspicious withdrawal, Boyden methodically works backward, looking for patterns in order to link a transaction to a suspect. "They are worthy opponents. They are really clever at manipulating the financial system," he said.

"You can't even conceive the ideas that they're going come up with tomorrow."

Pursuing crooks who use other people's identities as a mask is tedious work. "Probably the vast majority of people I've arrested for this, I never knew their true names until I had my hands on them."

And getting his hands on the crooks is a challenge in itself. Boyden often ends up waiting for them at commercial mailboxes, banks, and even their homes, with his pistol in hand. If he has the luxury of time, Boyden will coordinate with local police, but usually he makes the collar alone. "You have to get them when you can," he said.

Foot and car chases are fairly common for Boyden. "It's not unusual for them to run their cars into embankments or for people to jump out windows," he said. Boyden wrecked his own car during one chase.

Ultimately, Boyden enjoys the battle of wits. "It's rewarding because you're dealing with an intelligent class of criminals," he said.

He juggles several investigations at a time because Houston has one of the highest rates of identity theft in the nation, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"Everyone is learning how to do it. You just can't stay on top of it," he said.

With many of his tips coming from identity theft suspects who want to plea bargain after being arrested, catching some of the bad guys, he said, is like "shooting fish in a barrel."

Although identity theft is a white-collar crime, Boyden's philosophy has stayed the same since his days routing out murderers and rapists as a cop in Waxahachie.

"I'm the good guy. They're the bad guys," he said. "And I get paid to catch them."

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