NASHVILLE - State Safety Department officials on Tuesday unveiled a new unit intended to combat the growing problem of identity theft and fraud in Tennessee.
Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said at a news conference the move has a twofold purpose.
"One, our federal partners are just snowed under with this," he said. "And two, it was a recognition on our part that local law enforcement agencies by and large do not have the expertise to investigate these cases."
They also often don't have enough personnel to deal with often complex cases involving technology that often cross city, county and state jurisdictions and even national borders, Gibbons and other officials said.
The 14-member unit comprises personnel from Safety's Highway Patrol, the state Office of Homeland Security and the Driver Services Division. The divisions already have worked together in a number of past cases with federal agencies.
The new unit centralizes efforts with existing resources, officials said.
Members will work as needed on significant cases forwarded by local departments. They'll also continue the department's ongoing cooperation with the U.S. Secret Service and FBI officials in Tennessee and U.S. Homeland Security officials.
Gibbons said there is a "great need" to deal more aggressively with the "growing problem" of identity theft and accompanying fraud. There were an estimated 4,275 complaints made by Tennesseans last year, according to a database maintained by the Federal Trade Commission.
The commissioner believes that's just the "tip of the iceberg."
Safety Deputy Director Larry Godwin said the department's new unit already helped federal officials investigate a scheme orchestrated by a Mississippi prison inmate. That involved an attempt to steal thousands of dollars of federal Pell grant money using the names of students at six colleges and universities, including the University of Tennessee at Martin, he said.
The Identity Crimes Unit will provide support to local law enforcement on request but will consider several factors to determine its level of involvement. Those include fraudulent use of a driver's license, which the Highway Patrol has existing authority to investigate.
Other factors include homeland security issues, the financial amount of fraud involved, violation of Tennessee felony laws and referrals from federal agencies.
A former Memphis Police director, Godwin said he knows larger Tennessee police departments, including Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville, have their own identity theft efforts.
"But at the same time, I think they'll welcome any assistance that this can provide when it crosses the [jurisdictional] line," he said.