Vancouver leads the country in cases of stolen mail, part of an epidemic of identity theft here, authorities say in the first of a four-part CTV series.

The city is a bonanza for identity thieves, who use stolen credit card statements and cheques to drain victims' bank accounts, said Sgt. Ken Athans, who runs the Vancouver Police Department's identity theft task force.

"It's huge business in Vancouver," he said. "It's only growing. It will only get bigger.

"It's high gain and low risk, more people are going to get into it and that's what's happening in Vancouver," he said.

At any one time, police are keeping track of 300 identity thieves in Vancouver alone, with 30 to 40 of them considered chronic offenders who make thousands of dollars a day, Athans said.

Vancouver is at the centre of a perfect storm, he said. Crystal meth addicts who need to support an expensive lifestyle turned to the high density of Vancouver's West End and Yaletown to find a lot of mail in a small area.

All they need is a few pieces of personal information from a credit card application or a bank statement to con online and telephone banking systems into opening up your account, Athans said.

"You have a target-rich environment," he said.

Athans said he's worried that identity thieves, who are targeting Vancouverites, will widen the hunt when the city welcomes the world for the Olympics in 2010.

It's going to be huge with all the tourists here, the quick changing of money, different-looking ID," he said. "It's going to be ripe for ID criminals."

Three years ago, someone stole Lionel Hondier's tax return from his mailbox. Since then, every few months, someone has drained his bank account.

"It's very frustrating," Hondier told CTV News.

"Someone can mug you and rob you in the street and they can take what's on you," he said. "But someone can go into your account and empty your whole account."

A dedicated crown prosecutor, Peter Stabler, convicts an identity thief every other business day in Vancouver.

Authorities struggling to keep up with the problem are appointing another dedicated crown prosecutor in Surrey as well, said Stabler.

But the crime is so lucrative that some people view jail time as just a cost of doing business, he said.

"It's the same people who keep showing up, every few months," Stabler said. "And Vancouver is way ahead of the pack."

With a report by CTV British Columbia's Jonathan Woodward