The growing national identity theft problem hit close to home recently as authorities confirmed that thieves stole identities and rang up fraudulent charges on a large number of neighbors in clusters of the Akron area and Northeast Ohio.

The number of ID theft cases with similar characteristics is now at 77 — 19 in Copley Township, 10 in Streetsboro, 20 in Montville Township and 16 in the Cleveland suburb of Berea and 12 in the city of Avon.

The victims have had charges up to $20,000 in their name and one woman is topping $40,000. A previous Beacon Journal story about the fraud is online at www.ohio.com/betty. Montville gained two more cases since the first news report was published and Avon officials were unavailable during my first round of reporting.

Authorities are hoping to meet this week with each other and representatives from federal agencies such as the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office. An official with the Postal Inspector’s office in Chicago told me on Friday that he could not comment on an active investigation by his agency. But he confirmed that both his agency and the Secret Service in Chicago are investigating and that our Ohio victims are among victims in multiple states.

Terry Sullivan with the Cleveland Postal Inspector’s Office said his agency is aware of the cases, but there so far has been no evidence of postal theft. The victims have not reported mail they normally received is missing.

“This is a terrible thing. We are aware of it and trying to work with people,” he said. The problem for his agency is that while the victims are in Ohio, the crimes are not occurring in Ohio.

Strangely, when it comes to crimes, “for some reason, people love to victimize Ohioans from outside Ohio,” said Sullivan. Criminals profile potential victims and Ohioans and especially senior citizens may have worked for good factories or companies and tend to save their money.

Authorities have not been able to find a common link among the victims. In many of the communities, the neighbors live in homes built by the same builder, but in two of the communities — Montville Township and Avon — the homes were not with that builder.

The authorities believe the thefts are part of a large, sophisticated crime ring.

A few arrests have been made of thieves in stores in other states, but they haven’t garnered much information about the source of the crimes, detectives have said.

Identity theft has been a growing problem for the average American for a long time — this is the 13th year in a row that it is the largest complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, said Eva Casey Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that helps ID theft victims.

“It’s almost like the new street-level drug dealer. You’ve got a lot more financial incentive. They can make a lot more money. The penalty if they’re caught is not as severe,” Velasquez said.

Often, the ID thieves aren’t caught and it’s possible the criminals in this Northeast Ohio case will not be caught or prosecuted, but Valesquez said “this ring is getting pretty big. I suspect they’re going to allocate resources to it.”

ID theft ranges from family members stealing an identity of a loved one to someone who steals information from wallets to sophisticated international cybercrimals.

A recent report by ID Analystics’ ID: A Labs found that there are more than 10,000 identity fraud rings in the United States.

Velasquez said a variety of ways exist for criminals in cases such as Northeast Ohio’s to get their victims’ information.

Victims of ID theft never do anything wrong — they are truly the victims. In these cases, people didn’t know anything was wrong until they started getting bills for charges they didn’t make. Their wallets weren’t stolen and they were careful about sharing their information.

In an accompanying story, I’ve put together some tips from experts on protecting your identity and what you can do if you become the victim of ID theft.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.wtwitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.