In July 2005, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado indicted Pedro Castorena-Ibarra of Guadalajara, Mexico, for his involvement in masterminding a criminal organization responsible for the illegal production and distribution of counterfeit identification documents throughout the United States and Mexico.
While this indictment and others like it have landed disastrous blows on major criminal organizations, small to moderate operations are sprawling in small towns throughout the country. What exactly does it take to establish and operate this type of criminal enterprise?
This article will offer unique insight into the document fraud business through the eyes of a former counterfeiter, illustrating how easy this type of business can be established and its potential dangers to law enforcement and homeland security.
E.B., whose initials are used to protect his identity, crossed illegally into the United States from Mexico approximately five years ago. He and a group of about 20 others from the State of Puebla, Mexico, found their way into the United States by climbing over a small barbed wire fence on a Texas ranch. Once in Texas, E.B. quickly sought to buy fake green and Social Security cards. Two days later he had purchased both for $200. What caught E.B.'s attention was the dozen or so others who also were purchasing the same documents. He saw how easy it was to make the documents and how much money there was to be made.
Eight weeks later, he was renting an apartment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and running his own document fraud business, making approximately $3,000 to $5,000 per week. E.B. chose Philadelphia due to its high concentration of illegal aliens.
He operated his business for two years without being arrested and, to the best of his knowledge, ever being investigated by law enforcement. E.B, still an illegal alien, now works in the construction industry in his attempts to become a legal U.S. resident.
Setting up the operation
According to E.B., the average start up cost is between $2,000 and $3,000 for a small operation that will produce anywhere between 200 to 300 cards a month. The documents produced by this type of operation will generally be of low to medium quality. Those who spend between $3,000 and $5,000 can set up an operation that produces hundreds of high quality cards a month.
Upon visiting a local office supply store, E.B. purchased a laptop computer, color laser printer, flat bed scanner, laminating machine and various other miscellaneous materials. The equipment was then set up in a corner of his bedroom.
Special printing paper, such as Teslin and security paper for birth certificates, was purchased from vendors via the Internet. What he couldn't get from the Web he would have shipped in from Mexico. E.B. says if you can't find something in the United States, you can definitely get it from Mexico.
E.B. then had to decide what type of documents to counterfeit. To find this information he asked around the illegal alien community. He learned commonly purchased documents included resident alien cards, Social Security cards, international driver's licenses and Mexican driver's licenses.
E.B. says the reason people counterfeit a Mexican driver's license as opposed to an American one is the majority of police officers do not know what a real Mexican license is supposed to look like. So, when presented with one, officers have no idea if what they are looking at is real or fake.
After deciding what documents to sell, E.B. went to a local counterfeiter who sold him computer files containing the templates of dozens of ID cards, including resident alien cards; Social Security cards; employment authorization cards; birth certificates from various states within the U.S.; Mexican licenses, voter cards and consular ID cards; and instruction sheets so he would know what information to print.
The setup of the operation took two to three weeks. The first day E.B. was in business he had about 10 customers. He charged $150 for a green card and Social Security card together, $100 for a Mexican driver's license, and $125 for an international driver's license. As his operation grew, he increased the types of documents he offered.
E.B. offered some insight into the increased demand for counterfeit Mexican Matricula Consular cards.
The Matricula is an identification card issued by various Mexican consulates in the United States. The card is intended to be a reliable identification document for Mexican nationals living abroad. By obtaining this card, more than 100 banks nationwide will accept it as identification for opening checking and savings accounts. Once a person opens an account, he is able to obtain Visa check cards and, in some instances, credit cards.
Running the operation
As with any other business, customers are needed in order to make sales. E.B. says that selling fake IDs is like selling drugs. He had to hire workers or "runners" to solicit business on the streets. The runners are other illegal aliens looking for work. He only hired illegal aliens because he knew they would not go to the police for fears of being turned in to immigration and deported.
According to E.B., the best area to find customers is where day laborers would gather looking for work. The laborers know the contractors who pick them up might want to make a copy of their green card and Social Security card so it looks like they are not breaking any laws by hiring illegal aliens.
On many occasions, contractors solicited the runners themselves in order to get numerous fake cards for their employees.
E.B.'s crew usually set up shop about one or two blocks from the laborers. Once they established an area, the runners would have no trouble finding customers. Upon being approached by a potential customer, the runner would direct them to the nearest business that offered passport-size photographs.
The runner would explain what color background was required and how the person needed to be standing when the photo was taken. Usually, the background color was white making it easier to edit when E.B. scanned the photo.
The runner advised the customer to bring the money and photographs back to the location. When the customer returned, the runner asked him what information he wanted to appear on the card, such as name, date of birth, etc.
Once the runner had the photos, money and information, he advised the customer to come back in an hour and his cards would be ready. The runner would then take everything to E.B. to be printed.
The customer was never invited to the location where the documents were being printed. All transactions were at the street level. Since the customers never saw where the documents were being made, it made it much harder for law enforcement to locate the operation. The only weak link in the operation would be the runners.
To make sure the runners knew as little as possible, E.B. never let them see the area where he was printing the documents.
E.B. admits when it came to things like Social Security Numbers or green card numbers he typically made them up. He says operations printing high quality cards go one step further in obtaining information. They go into the community and find legal residents of similar background and use their information. This includes name, date of birth, Social Security Number, etc. Then, when law enforcement runs this information through a computer system, it comes up valid.
With technology playing such an important role in today's law enforcement, officers rely too heavily on computer searches without paying close attention to the identification document itself.
In an example provided by E.B., the officer being presented with a counterfeit ID containing the information of another person would need to carefully scrutinize the document in order to deduce that the person in front of him was an imposter and the identification fake.
Initiating an investigation
Conducting investigations into the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit identification documents is not much different than a narcotics investigation.
The first step is intelligence gathering. Using crime analysis, an agency should research where arrests and crimes involving counterfeit documents have occurred in its jurisdiction. Then, it should contact the local field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service and the Social Security Administration - Office of Inspector General to see if they have any intelligence on operations or trends. One of the most under-utilized resources is the cooperation between local and federal law enforcement.
Gathered intelligence should then be taken and used to conduct surveillance on the suspected runners. The surveillance can be conducted by patrol units and detectives. In some instances, it is advantageous to use patrol units because the runners are used to seeing them in the area and those units are less likely to draw attention. Once the runners are identified, officers need to make some purchases using a confidential informant or undercover officer.
When dealing with illegal alien populations, using undercover officers can be somewhat of a problem. For example, in the Hispanic population, the undercover officer would have to speak Spanish.
The problem is, however, that unless the undercover officer learned Spanish from birth, he will have a distinct dialect difference from a native speaker. Also, he will not have the firsthand knowledge of the country or region the runners may be from.
The most successful way to make purchases during an investigation is to use confidential informants. These will be people from the illegal alien community or closely associated to it. This is where the cooperation with ICE is important. As the enforcers of the nation's immigration laws, this agency has more latitude when dealing with foreign nationals. It also may already use established informants who may be able to assist in a joint investigation.
After the informant makes the purchase, the difficult part of the "buy" operation will be following the runner back to the printing location. The runners in most operations will commonly take different routes, sometimes in an overlapping fashion, to ensure they are not being followed by law enforcement. It is imperative to locate the printing location. For the purposes of a search warrant, this is usually where all the equipment, blank documents, etc. are located. If the printing location is not found, the only arrest will be the runners.
Homeland security issues
The distribution and use of counterfeit identification documents is both a local and a national issue. Local law enforcement comes across the use of these documents through everyday activities such as traffic enforcement or at their local motor vehicles office. Federal law enforcement deals with major crimes and criminal organizations. While both have unique problems arising from the document fraud industry, they share the same homeland security concerns.
According to ICE, more than 150 illegal aliens were arrested on, or while attempting to enter, U.S. military installations in 2006. This includes major installations such as Camp Pendleton, California, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. From a terrorism perspective, these people are foreign nationals, and for whatever reason, are engaged in activities on a military base.
In June 2006, a joint investigation revealed 55 illegal aliens working at a secure construction site on the grounds of Washington Dulles International Airport. These individuals gained employment by using counterfeit identification documents. If these individuals had any criminal intent, they had just been given secure access to an airport. The question becomes: What would stop an individual - who obtained a fraudulent Mexican consular card and U.S. driver's license, opened a bank account and obtained a credit card - from going to the airport and boarding an airplane?
Also in 2006, investigators from the Government Accountability Office used counterfeit identification documents to enter the United States from Mexico and Canada at nine inspection points. They did not attempt to sneak into the country. They simply approached Customs and Border Patrol officers and produced counterfeit identification. They relied on the fact that the officers were not trained enough to detect the documents were fake.
All these incidents are meant to illustrate the need for law enforcement to respond to the issue of selling and using counterfeit identification documents. E.B. provided invaluable insight into the document fraud industry, showing just how easy it is to manufacture and distribute these documents. These operations are found in major cities and small towns. Law enforcement officials need to better prepare themselves for the task at hand.
As a first step, local law enforcement needs to foster a better working relationship with its federal counterparts. Both groups need to rely on each other's knowledge and experience in dealing with these crimes. By combining resources, each agency augments the knowledge and experience of its veteran officers and agents with the technology and intelligence of the other.
Many local agencies express frustration with ICE when dealing with cases involving illegal aliens. They expect ICE to respond immediately when they call and advise them that they have an illegal alien under arrest. By building a better working relationship with ICE, an agency can understand the issues the organization faces, such as understaffing, time constraints, lack of confinement resources and the enforcement of certain immigration laws.
Lastly, law enforcement officers need to be trained in the detection and investigation of counterfeit identification documents. It is a topic to which many officers have not been introduced. They need to know what to look for and what to do once they suspect a document may be counterfeit.
No one expects law enforcement officers to be trained to the level of forensic document examiners, but they should have a basic understanding of the security features of federal and state identity documents. Officers should be armed with basic techniques for detecting fraudulent documents.