A frightening number of the nation's registered sex offenders hide, change or attempt to alter their identities to avoid parole conditions aimed at keeping them from striking again, according to preliminary findings of a new study.
Roughly 92,000 of the 569,325 registered sex offenders — approximately 16 percent — are digital absconders who use techniques developed by identity thieves to alter their names, birthdays, Social Security numbers and other personal information, according to the study conducted by Utica College's Center for Identity Management and Information Protection. This allows them to evade authorities while seemingly meeting court-imposed requirements or other restrictions. The tweaked identities allow them to apply for jobs, tap social benefits, hide their past from neighbors and possibly prey on more victims — all while appearing to be on the radar of those charged with tracking them.
"We have to dig deeper to find out why this is happening," said Don Rebovich, the criminal justice professor at Utica College who directed the study. "It's not to be critical of any of the tracking agencies in the states because they are doing great jobs, but there will be some offenders who slip through the cracks if they change their identities — and it's not that hard."
"It's not that difficult to change your identity, unfortunately. There are simple ways to do that."
- Don Rebovich, professor, Utica College
Rebovich told FoxNews.com that these individuals "hide in plain sight" of authorities mandated to track them by reporting systems outlined under the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, which categorized sex offenders into three tiers and created a national sex offender registry. The complete Department of Justice-funded study is expected to be released sometime this fall.
"It's not that difficult to change your identity, unfortunately," he said. "There are simple ways to do that."
Rebovich recalled the case of Frank Kuni, a Level-2 sex offender in New Jersey with 19 known aliases — including Phanton Flam and Toot Flynn — who, while using the name Jamie Shepard, was able to land a job as a U.S. Census worker. After an astute New Jersey mother recognized him from an online registry, Kuni, 50, was sentenced last year to three years in prison.
In Kuni's case, Rebovich said a delay in processing fingerprints allowed a sex offender to work for the government.
"His fingerprints were taken by the Census Bureau and were supposed to be checked out by the FBI," he said. "The protocol was followed, but there was a breakdown somewhere. He was exploiting the fact that the fingerprints didn't come back in time. He is probably an average offender who has a lot of time on his hands and figured out how he could slip through the radar."
In general, Rebovich said identities are most often changed with an altered spelling of an offender's name or by changing Social Security numbers.
In some states, including Louisiana, Nevada and Tennessee, the number of registered offenders using altered identities exceeds 25 percent. In Louisiana, the figure was 64.5 percent, according to the preliminary study, compared to the national low of 7.1 percent in Wisconsin.
The altered identities don't mean the offenders aren't checking in regularly with their parole officers. Actual absconder rates — the percentage of sex offenders who get released and disappear — are extremely low. Kristin Helm, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said the state has 18,627 registered sex offenders and only about 1 percent are unaccounted for. But while offenders can't change their fingerprints for parole officers, they can easily pass themselves off as someone else to the general public.
"Aliases among those who commit criminal activity is not unusual; however, fingerprints obtained by law enforcement identify individuals regardless of a name or Social Security number," Helm told FoxNews.com.
Finding sex offenders who present themselves as someone else required algorithms developed by ID Analytics, a San Diego-based anti-fraud company that processed sex offender data against its massive credit-related trove, Rebovich said. Stephen Coggeshall, chief technology officer at the firm, said it pinpointed offenders using phony addresses, names or Social Security numbers — or doing a combination of those. One trick used by registered sex offenders is to establish a second residence close to their registered address, he said.
"They may be known to neighbors under a different name and they may be also applying for certain services with that name," Coggeshall said. "We see these people applying for products and services under identities that are not their registered identities. That's basically what we see that the police generally don't see."