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CROOKS TURN TO WHITE-COLLAR TACTICS

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With public attention and government resources increasingly focused on violent crime, white-collar criminals are quietly flourishing in the wealth of Southern California, according to interviews with law enforcement officials.

Some violent criminals are turning to shady business scams and high technology in order to prey on the gullible and vulnerable - particularly the elderly - in a mounting crime wave that annually reaps as much as $2 billion in Los Angeles County alone, prosecutors said."I think I would agree with the hypothesis that a lot of criminals are shifting over to white-collar crime tactics as a safer way of making ill-gotten gains," said Tom Papageorge, head of the Consumer Protection Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

"You can steal more effectively, as it turns out, with a pen or a computer or a telephone, than you can with a gun," Papageorge said.

Aided by high-technology computers and new ways to counterfeit credit cards and clone cellular phone identity signals, criminals are ripping off so many people in Los Angeles that the Sheriff's Department fraud detail has had to limit investigations to cases where the victims have lost $25,000 or more.

"We're seeing more and more people with violent crime backgrounds getting into white-collar crime," said Capt. Gary Vance, chief of the sheriff's Commercial Crimes Bureau. "I think a lot of this is because of the `three-strikes-and-you're-out' law."

The "three strikes law" approved by the voters and adopted by the state legislature mandates a life sentence for a criminal convicted of a third violent or serious crime.

The state Senate Office of Research released a report last week that concluded white-collar criminals steal more money from more victims than the average burglar ever dreamed of, but are less likely to get caught or to serve as much prison time even if they are.

"A third-time shoplifter who steals his third $100 item from a store for a lifetime career of $300 will probably get a much stiffer sentence than someone who on a first-time basis swindles someone out of $150,000," said Deputy District Attorney John Geb, supervisor of Ventura County's major fraud division.

Police bunco and forgery squads are understaffed and overwhelmed, and prosecutors are staggering under massive case loads of technically complex cases, said the report entitled "Law Enforcement's View: The Growing Menace of Fraud in California."

The typical fraud case can involve boxes of documents and thousands of victims forcing prosecutors to file charges on only the most egregious violations, said Jim Sepulveda, chief of the white-collar crime unit with the Contra Costa County, Calif. District Attorney's Office.

"The odds of being caught in this sort of thing right now are really pretty low, and the gain is potentially millions of dollars," Sepulveda said. "So the gain for many of these people is worth the risk."

The 154-page Senate report is based on a survey of dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement officials throughout California conducted in the past year.

"I found it very disturbing that a lot of people are being affected by white-collar crime, and very disturbing that resources are not being used for this purpose, and they should be," said Sen. Milton Marks, D-San Rafael.