By MICHELLE ZENAROSA
WASHINGTON (Dec. 19, 2008)—For the first time in seven years, crime rates in Maryland are increasing and indicators point to the economy as the cause.
It is not a stretch to conclude that lean times can lead to more folks looking for alternative ways to make a quick buck, even if that means resorting to illegal activity, experts said.
"We're pretty safe to predict that if the economy tanks, you're going to experience some increases in crime," said Gary LaFree, crime expert and criminology professor at the University of Maryland. "That certainly happens more often than not. The more strain you put on the household, the more people tend to drink and the more they tend to get into mischief."
Maryland's crime rate historically shows increases during times of economic duress. During the 1980 to 1982 recession, breaking and entering crimes were higher than at any time since 1975, averaging more than 70,000 reported incidents, a Capital News Service analysis shows.
And to make matters worse, experts are saying that the recession, which began a year ago, shows evidence that the problems may deepen and continue longer than expected.
"The sort of extreme example is (Victor Hugo's) 'Les Miserables' case, that stealing to feed your family case—I don't think it's usually that bleak, but if you have a choice between . . . working at no job or working a marginal job, crime starts to look like a more realistic alternative," LaFree said.
Crime rose 3 percent in the first six months of this year, according to the Maryland Uniform Crime Report, the result of continuing home foreclosures and increasing unemployment driving property crimes, domestic violence and conspiracy fraud.
For example, in the first six months of 2008, breaking or entering increased 7 percent and larceny increased 6 percent, according to Maryland's Uniform Crime Report.
In Frederick County, for instance, reported thefts increased from 297 in 2007 to 338 in the first half of 2008, a jump of almost 14 percent, according to the UCR.
"While we know some of it is economy driven, it's really important to have that relationship with the community," said Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, spokeswoman for the Frederick County Police Department. "We're constantly trying to do public service announcements for people to keep their valuables locked up and not in plain view. Don't become an easy target basically."
Thefts from autos, as well as the theft of scrap metal from autos and buildings, have increased this year in areas as diverse as Frederick County and Baltimore County.
Automobile catalytic converter thefts have more than doubled in Baltimore County, going from 125 in 2007 to 320 as of September 2008, while there's been a 22 percent increase in thefts from motor vehicles in general in the first three quarters of 2008 compared to the same time in 2007, according to data provided by the Baltimore County Police Department.
Catalytic converters are targeted for the small amounts of platinum found in them.
"That's become a very persistent problem that has become a problem everywhere," said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police, who does not believe that the numbers correlate with the bad economy.
Howard County Police also have seen significant increases in thefts of items from cars, such as Global Positioning System machines, laptops and MP3 players.
"These are often crimes committed by people who are looking for valuable things to steal and if your car doesn't offer those items, then you're less likely to be victimized," said Sherry Llewellyn, spokeswoman for the Howard County Police, advocating that drivers remove tempting items from a car when it is unattended.
Maryland State Police officials said they do not keep records of the number of identity thefts and fraud, however state criminal defense and consumer lawyers report a surge in scam complaints.
"Unfortunately with the economy being bad, more thieves are out there trying to find a way to make some money. In general, I can tell it has increased from phone calls to the office, request for assistance from people who have unfortunately been scammed," said Sonya Smith-Valentine, a consumer attorney based in Greenbelt.
Beltsville criminal defense lawyer Brian Bregman said he has been experiencing a 30 to 40 percent increase in calls regarding credit card and ATM skimming scams in the last year. Bregman blames the increase on the economy.
Homeowners going through foreclosures are also vulnerable to foreclosure rescue scams, said Bregman and Phillip Robinson, executive director for Civil Justice, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore providing legal services to low- and moderate-income clients.
In the scheme, a con-artist tells a homeowner they can save their home from foreclosure. The con takes out a loan on the equity on the house, setting up a lease where the terms so high that the homeowner can't make the payments. By the time the homeowner realizes what has happened, the scam artist has already run away with thousands of dollars in equity.
However, the scam is not as easy to execute as it was eight months ago because Maryland enacted a law last session requiring lenders to investigate whether borrowers have the ability to repay the loan.
"There's going to be far fewer but that doesn't mean there's not going to be another new scam. We just don't know what it is yet," Robinson said.
Greenbelt consumer lawyer Sonya Smith-Valentine said the number of fraud scams have swelled because of the difficulty of pinning the fraud on or finding the perpetrator in order to prosecute.
"The increase has jumped more as the economy has started to go down," Smith-Valentine said. "It was on an incline but the incline just got steeper. The increase seemed to be happening faster."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.