District Attorney Bruce Brown says he has only ‘scratched the surface’ of consumer fraud in Summit County
The Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office has been busy of late dealing with consumer fraud cases as more individuals look to the courts for solutions in dealing with fraudulent business practices and financial crimes.
Late last month the office charged Tracey Craig Tucker, a plumber operating in Summit County, with felony theft after he allegedly stole more than $7,000 in deposits for work he never completed. (Tucker denies wrongdoing.)
But the issue stretches far beyond Summit County. Last week law enforcement officials in Lake County arrested Alex Hagan, 30, on charges of theft, forgery and criminal impersonation after he was allegedly caught operating a bandit land survey business.
Similarly, Nicholas Steven Hesse, 30, is set to head to trial in January on charges of theft and criminal exploitation of at-risk persons after allegedly stealing more than $30,000 in deposits for uncompleted home renovation projects in Eagle County.
Despite a number of ongoing and already adjudicated cases of consumer fraud in Summit and beyond, District Attorney Bruce Brown said the problem is likely much more serious than some may realize.
“I think it’s a pretty significant issue,” said Brown. “We have a robust economy here with a lot of money changing hands. That’s going to attract people who want to prey on easy marks. I can’t put a number on unreported crimes, but we know we’re only scratching the surface on things like commercial fraud.”
Brown said that his office typically handles about two major fraud cases a year — between $50,000 and $100,000 has been stolen — along with a handful of smaller cases. But with so many potential cases out there, why don’t more go to court?
There’s no simple answer. Brown noted that if a case makes its way to the district attorney’s office, the chances are there will be a criminal filing thanks to the weeding out of weaker allegations at the law enforcement level.
But financial crimes are particularly difficult to prosecute for a variety of reasons, including the specialized nature of investigations, difficulty in distinguishing between fraudulent and simply poor business practices and the substantial resources required from law enforcement and prosecutors.
“This isn’t a problem unique to Summit County,” said Brown. “This is a problem that is systemic to the criminal justice system. And I think in part it stems from a couple things. The first is that we don’t assume crimes occur. We assume in a situation where somebody lost money that it was just a bad business transaction. We have to cross that line to prove fraud, which can often times take enormous amounts of resources to devote.
“Part of the reason why people commit fraud is because they feel like it can fly under the radar as an innocent business transaction gone bad. The serial thief creates elaborate schemes in order to disguise their underlying intent. They may do so by preying on vulnerable people or crafting contracts in a way which gives them an excuse for not performing work that will appear to be innocent, when in fact it may be a scheme that’s being perpetrated among many people who are disconnected from one another. Detection of the pattern of activity is more difficult.”
Patterns are particularly important in financial crimes. As Brown noted, law enforcement officials may have trouble distinguishing between innocent business transactions and outright fraud, meaning financial crimes are much more easily proven over multiple transactions instead of isolated incidents.
Adding to the difficulty is that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors often don’t have the skills and resources necessary to properly investigate financial crimes such as dedicated commercial crime detectives and forensic accountants qualified to dig through financial and bank records.
Brown noted that his office only includes two investigators for all four counties, and that they attend training events on things such as wage theft. But financial crimes also typically aren’t a priority.
“In weighing where we want to have specialized expertise, we’ve chosen to emphasize sex offenses over economic crimes,” said Brown. “That’s somewhat of a moral choice we make because of the greater harm to individual victims of assaultive crimes. It’s not to minimize the effects of financial crimes, but we have to make resource choices and that’s where our choices have been made in the past.”
Brown continued to say that in the realm of financial crimes, those perpetrated against vulnerable populations such as the eldery or undocumented workers attract more attention.
Brown also said that his office needs to do a better job of making sure that victims know their options such as attempting to bring civil or criminal cases. He said that often financial crimes go unreported for a number of reasons, including the embarrassment of being duped or fear that the case won’t be heard. But he hopes that the continued prosecution of consumer fraud cases coupled with public attention will make criminals think twice and victims more open to reporting.
“Generally speaking we’re more of an office that’s responsive to what’s happening in the community,” said Brown. “The more people recognize that they might have an ear for a type of crime they assume won’t be looked at, and if they find an office that is willing to look at it they’re more willing to report. That’s part of the public outreach role that the district attorney needs to serve, which is to let the community know that the office is open for business and people shouldn’t assume that we wouldn’t take their case.”
Brown said that those on the short end of a commercial transaction should first try to engage the other party to try and resolve the issue before making use of legal resources. If that’s not successful, the next step is typically reaching out to a lawyer to see if a lawsuit is an option. If there are signs that the party had no intention of fulfilling their end of the agreement — such as a contractor never pulling work permits or ordering the necessary supplies — it is likely a fraudulent transaction and should be reported to law enforcement.
Brown also suggests searching social media pages, such as One Man’s Junk Summit County, to find others who may have been defrauded to provide law enforcement officials a means to put together a pattern of criminal activity.
“There’s the old saying that you can steal more money from a man with a pen than a gun,” said Brown. “And it’s really true. So we have to recognize that there are criminals out there wielding a pen, and we have to be aggressively trying to deal with that. There are real victims out there who deserve protection from financial crimes.”
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