Enforcement Expo Sneak Peak: Fake finders

If you’re planning to attend Enforcement Expo in New Orleans at the end of October, you might want to add this unique training opportunity to your agenda. The “Detecting Fraudulent Documents” seminar on Nov. 2 is taught by Martin Johnson, a forensic document examiner with the Howard (Md.) County PD. In the 4-hour session (8 a.m. to 12 p.m.), Johnson will provide participants with an overview of general security features employed by the U.S. government to establish the validity of government documents, as well as known methods used to alter or counterfeit those documents commonly presented to officers. Johnson will discuss identity cards, driver’s licenses and social security cards.

LET recently had a preliminary chat with the former fraud investigator about the exclusive training. Here’s a look at what it’s like to be in the business of detecting fake IDs, and dealing with everyone from the “young and the thirsty” to 9/11 terrorists.

LET: What were your responsibilities investigating fraudulent documents?

Johnson: During the last 13 of my 25 years [at] Howard Co. PD, I spent lots of time investigating counterfeits, their use, and the people who make them. And tracing some of them back to their manufacturers and orchestrating the raid, arrest, and seizure of evidence of those people. I would treat it an awful lot like a narcotics investigation, although I was never a narcotics investigator. You find somebody with drugs, [you ask] where did you get them...you squeeze them, they tell you, then you use that person or you use somebody else and you set up a controlled buy of the ID. [You ask], Where did you get the ID? “I don’t know, I found it.” Really, with your picture on it? Fascinating. What are the odds of that?

So we just squeeze people into giving up accurate information. Then we make controlled buys with police department money and use police people, or non-police people under our supervision to make the buys from the vendors of the false documents...you develop enough evidence to get a search and seizure warrant and to be able to arrest the manufacturers.

You get a bunch of guys together—SWAT or non-SWAT, tactical or non-tactical—depending on the situation, because some vendors of counterfeit documents also dabble in weapons and drugs, heroin importation, and all kinds of other things. Break down their doors, take their equipment, arrest them, and work with prosecutors to convict them.

LET: In your experience, what are some of the more common counterfeit documents an officer may be presented with in his or her career?

Johnson: Driver’s licenses, immigration cards, Social Security cards.

LET: Can you recall one of the more unique cases you’ve encountered?

Johnson: They’re all pretty much the same from one to the next. I had one guy, an illegal alien who’s making counterfeit documents for illegal aliens and other criminals, including drivers licenses, immigration cards, and social security guards, who was using a $2 bill as entry tickets for other people who wanted counterfeit documents. Here’s what I mean: I’m the bad guy. You come to me and you want those documents. For whatever reason I decide you’re probably not the police, you’re probably not homeland security investigations, integration, whatever. And I show you the documents; I show you an immigration card and a social security card for $150, which is about the going rate. Now I trust you, because I didn’t get arrested after that happened.

So…I give you ten genuine $2 dollar bills. And I tell you go out and find ten more people who you know are not the police; go out and send them to me for their documents, and I will give you a cut of the money that I make.

It’s not unlike franchising or building a sales force, like Amway—the Amway of counterfeit identity documents. And the big “ticket” to me was that $2 dollar bill that I gave to you that you gave to somebody else.

Soon I’ve got an army of 11 people running around, spreading the word that I’m making a lot of money. The 9/11 terrorists had 63 items of identification that they used, that we know of. Some of it was real, much of it was not.

LET: In your mind what distinguishes the “bad fakes” from the “good?”

Johnson: False identification is not finite in the way they are made; the quality ranges anywhere from absolute garbage to near-perfect, where almost nobody would be able to determine whether they’re real or not. I’ve seen photos of the IDs that Whitey Bulger was using while he was going undetected, living reasonably well. They were absolute garbage. They wouldn’t have been accepted at any of the bars or the restaurants that I’ve worked with over the years.

How good does a fake ID have to be? It only has to be as good as needed to get over on the person you’re trying to fool. So you can have absolute garbage, but if the person on the receiving end hasn’t got a clue as to what they’re doing, then it’s good enough. It did the job. They’re all over the board; it’s like counterfeit money.

Timothy McVeigh used his counterfeit Kansas DL to rent the Ryder truck to fill with fertilizer fuel oil and kill 186 men, women and babies, and injure 780. He used a homemade by Terry Nichols’ wife. How good was it? Not particularly good, but it fooled the people at the Ryder agency.

[At the conference] I will be bringing with me some genuine driver’s licenses, some fraudulent immigration cards and some fraudulent social security cards for the hands-on training. [Attendees] can look at them, discover the security features on the genuine documents and verify what they’re supposed to be. Then they get the fraudulent documents in separate exercises to look at and make the determination based on what we’ve trained.

We talk specifically about a couple of types of most frequently counterfeited immigration cards, and about the most frequently counterfeited style of social security cards. Once they have that knowledge I give them the card and ask for a good base estimate—is it real, is it not? List the reasons why, one way or the other.

Those are the three exercises: we look at the real DLs, then we look at questionable immigration and Social Security cards. I also ask students to take out their own DLs and use the two tools we’ve furnished them, the magnifier and UV lights to do an examination. Then they look for and discover what their own states use as security features; [because] there is no real standardization from state to state.



Martin Johnson retired from the Howard County, Md., Police Department in 2009, where he served as a detective for 17 of his 25 years in law enforcement. He is an identity document analyst and investigation advisor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Identity Theft Working Group in Baltimore. He also instructs at Louisiana State University’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training—Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education. He teaches detection and investigation of fraudulent identity documents to law enforcement officers and other government agents. Editor’s note: To register for Enforcement Expo, where you can take Johnson’s free fraud documents session, go to enforcementexpo.com and click the “Get your badge today” button. Enter promo code “LET.”