Martin Johnson (retired) is the Forensic Document Examiner at the Howard County PD. He has worked with the US Attorney’s Office, DOJ, Homeland Security and Immigration. He has taught at LSU for the past three years.
LET: What were your responsibilities investigating fraudulent documents?
Johnson: During the last 13 of my 25 years in the police department, Howard Co. (Maryland) PD, I spent lots of time investigating counterfeit documents, their use, and the bad 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’d you get them, I’m not telling, 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, where’d 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 you just squeeze people into giving up accurate information. Then making controlled buys with police department money and using 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 & seizure warrant and to be able to arrest the manufacturers and …. [inaud]. ..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 dabbled in weapons and drugs, heroine 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 will be presented with in his or her career?
MJ: Driver's licenses, immigration cards, Social Security cards.
LET: Can you recall one of the more strange cases you encountered?
MJ: They’re all pretty much the same from one to the next. I had one guy, and 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 two dollar bills. And I tell you go out and find ten more people who you know are not the police and go out and send them to me for their documents, and I will give you a cut of the money that I make. So 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 two dollar bill that I gave to you that you gave to somebody else and then that person comes to me and shows me that they’ve got that two dollar bill and I say ok, that means that you’re trustworthy. Soon I’ve got an army of eleven people running around, spreading the word that I’m making a lot of money. The 911 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’?
MJ: 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 home-made 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. The people in the classes get to look at them, discover the security features on the genuine documents, verify what they’re supposed to be, and then they will get the fraudulent documents in separate exercises to take a look at and make the determination based on what we’ve trained about those cards. Because we talk specifically about a couple of types of most frequently counterfeited immigration cards, and we talk 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 questions immigrations cards then questions soc. Security cards. I also ask them to take out their own DLs and then they use the two tool we’ve furnished them, the (pentaur) magnifier and the UV lights to do an examination of their own DLs and look for and discover what their own states use as security features. There’s no real standardization from state to state.
Martin Johnson retired from the Howard County, Maryland Police Department in 2009, serving as a detective for 17 of his 25 years. He has been engaged in the intensive study of identity documents for 15 years, and is an identity document analyst and investigation advisor for the U.S. Attorney's Office Identity Theft Working Group in Baltimore. He is an instructor for Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training - Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education, part of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (www.ncbrt.lsu.edu). He teaches detection and investigation of fraudulent identity documents to law enforcement officers, retail industry representatives, and other government agents. He has examined thousands of identity documents involved in criminal cases and has personally investigated hundreds of other cases involving counterfeit identification. He has arrested many ID counterfeiters and shut down their manufacturing operations.