Mica, Mica - SS card & Drivers License for $140 to $160

  "Mica, mica," - you can get a three-pack" - a green card, driver's license and Social Security card for $140 to $160. Locations? The strip mall on 16th Street and Thomas Road, a gas station at 40th Street and McDowell, a strip mall at 35th Avenue and Thomas Road, outside a panaderia on 41st Street and McDowell Road, and in a McDonald's parking lot on 33rd Avenue and most likely any other street corner in the Latino areas of Phoenix and Tucson.


New hiring law spurs identity-theft fears
Authorities expect ID thieves to target real Social Security numbers
Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 19, 2007 12:00 AM

The fake-document trade is booming in Arizona. It's about to get even bigger.

Hundreds of operations around the Valley churn out fake green cards, Social Security cards and driver's licenses by the thousands, authorities say. Their chief customers: illegal immigrants. Some are trying to land jobs in Arizona. Some are passing through Phoenix, a major smuggling hub, on the way to other states.

Most of the fake documents bought on the street by undocumented immigrants are made with bogus numbers.

But authorities fear the industry will grow as migrants look for ways to circumvent the state's new employer-sanctions law and a new Bush administration crackdown on illegal workers.

The push for more documents, especially with authentic numbers, is expected to spur more identity theft.

"It's growing, and it's pervasive," said Lt. Giles Tipsword of the Phoenix Police Department's property crimes bureau. "This is a multimillion-dollar industry."

Arizona's new employer-sanctions law requires companies to verify worker eligibility through a federal database. Lawmakers in other states also are taking steps to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to use fake documents to land jobs, hoping the crackdown will cut down on illegal immigration. And under new rules announced last week by the Bush administration, employers risk prosecution if they don't fire workers whose names and Social Security numbers don't match.

But nobody thinks the fraudulent-document industry in Arizona will dry up and disappear. If anything, it's going to get bigger and more sophisticated as criminals who make fake documents adapt to meet demand. The database can't flag documents made with stolen identities, where the names and numbers match. As a result, a proliferation of fraudulent IDs, combined with identity theft, could undercut the employer-sanctions law.

"There is a good potential for an increase in identity theft and also an increase in the manufacture and sale of fraudulent documents," said Leesa Berens Morrison, director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security.

Identities in demand

In July, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a tough employer-sanctions law aimed at turning off the job magnet that draws illegal immigrants. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, revokes business licenses of employers caught knowingly hiring illegal workers a second time. It also requires the more than 150,000 licensed Arizona employers to run Social Security numbers and other data for new employees through the federal Basic Pilot Program, an electronic verification system. Arizona businesses employ about 2.6 million workers.

Two other states, Colorado and Georgia, have passed similar laws.

The Basic Pilot Program is designed to determine whether an employee is authorized to work in the U.S. by weeding out bogus Social Security numbers, rendering useless fake documents with phony numbers. But the current system can't detect when an unauthorized worker is using a stolen identity.

As a result, local, state and federal authorities anticipate a rise in identity theft. They expect to see fake-document makers morphing into large-scale criminal enterprises producing high-quality fraudulent documents made with real names and real Social Security numbers stolen from someone else. Most fraudulent-document makers operating now are small rings selling fake documents using invented ID numbers that belong to no one.

"The days of the mom-and-pop forgers are probably over," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.

That could exacerbate an already serious problem in Arizona. Arizona's identity-theft rate is the highest in the nation. The Phoenix area's identity-theft rate also ranks first compared with other metropolitan areas. Identity theft tied to employment fraud is the main reason the rate is so high in Arizona.

In 2005, the most recent data available, the Federal Trade Commission received 9,320 complaints of identity theft from Arizona victims. Thirty-four percent of those complaints were from victims whose stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information were used by illegal immigrants to gain employment, compared with 12 percent nationwide.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers the verification program, plans to roll out a new feature this month designed to reduce the number of unlawful workers trying to slip through the system using stolen identities, spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts said. The feature allows employers to electronically match photos on green cards with photos stored in a government database.

A quick and easy buy

Buying bogus documents is easy - and cheap.

Within hours of crossing the border, illegal immigrants can buy them from "runners" on street corners in communities all over the Valley, authorities say.

"Mica, mica," runners brazenly say to potential customers while flashing a C-sign with the thumb and first finger. Mica (pronounced MEE-ka) is Spanish slang for the green cards issued to permanent residents, allowing them to live and work in the U.S.

Other dealers are more discreet. They pass out business cards for auto mechanics, yard work, taxi cabs and other services that are really fronts for makers of fraudulent documents.

Some of the business cards are more cryptic.

"These cards will say simply something like 'El Gordo' and a phone number," said Edward Ochoa, an undercover investigator who buys fake documents as part of the Arizona Fraudulent Identification Task Force. The task force comprises local, state and federal agencies.

The strip mall on 16th Street and Thomas Road in central Phoenix is one popular spot for buying fake documents. The mall's security guard chases away men peddling micas in the parking lot all the time. The peddlers just walk away and start selling at the mall across the street. A few hours later, they are usually back. Sometimes, the security guard finds fake documents in flower planters and discarded passport photos in garbage cans.

To get a fake ID, a buyer provides a passport photo then waits while a runner takes the image to a "manufacturer," usually another undocumented immigrant holed up in an apartment nearby. Don't have a photo? The runner can usually snap one for you behind a store or carwash with a Polaroid camera.

Authorities say a "two-pack" - a green card and a Social Security card - costs as little as $70 on the street. A "three-pack" - a green card, driver's license and Social Security card - goes for $140 to $160. Those prices buy documents with randomly generated numbers. Sometimes the numbers invented by a manufacturer coincidentally belong to actual people.

Buying fake documents made with government-issued ID numbers and a matching name stolen from someone else is far more expensive. Those documents are more difficult to get and cost three to five times as much as ones using bogus Social Security and immigration numbers. Some numbers are stolen. Others belong to children or to people who died.

Voila, here's your ID

Producing fraudulent documents has become much easier because of the availability of relatively inexpensive technology, authorities say. All someone needs to make fraudulent documents is a computer, a scanner, a high-grade card printer, and a graphics software program like CorelDRAW.

Templates of driver's licenses, green cards and other documents can be bought on the black market, downloaded from the Internet or produced from scratch with a graphics software program.

"Anyone who has any kind of common knowledge, a computer and a template can go into business," said Sgt. Fred Hayman, a task force member.

The manufacturer scans the photo, pastes the image onto the template, types in a name and a birth date and then hits print. Voila, the printer spits out the card.

Within two hours of taking an order for fake documents, the runner is usually back with the goods: freshly minted documents real enough to fool unsuspecting employers or to satisfy unscrupulous ones willing to accept them.

To demonstrate how easy and fast it is to buy fraudulent documents, Ochoa recently bought a fake green card and Social Security card using the name and photo of an Arizona Republic reporter. It took 2 1/2 hours from the time Ochoa placed the order until the cards were delivered. A computer check of the Social Security number on the card showed that it belonged to someone living in the South. Ochoa paid $70 for the documents, which authorities kept as evidence in the criminal case against the document maker.

"The fastest we've had it done is 26 minutes," Hayman said.

On Aug. 7, officers arrested Luis Perez Gaona, 19, the person accused of selling the fake ID with the reporter's picture to undercover officers. Perez Gaona faces 17 felony charges in connection with selling fake documents, according to an indictment.

The driving force: Jobs

Fraudulent documents help grease the skids for illegal immigration. There are about 500,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state. Law-enforcement officials believe most own fake documents or can easily obtain them.

Illegal immigrants use them to board planes, register vehicles, open bank accounts, cash checks and evade arrest warrants during traffic stops.

But the main reason un- documented immigrants want them is for jobs, authorities say.

"These documents are not being constructed to fool an immigration officer, a border patrol officer or any person at a port of entry," said Jeffrey Ellis, a senior special agent with the Tucson office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The desire to be employed is driving the train."

Like other crime associated with illegal immigration, the fraudulent-document trade has flourished because the nation's immigration system is broken, said Orde Kittrie, an Arizona State University law professor who studies the link between immigration and crime.

The system does not allow enough immigrants to enter legally to meet the labor demands of the expanding U.S. economy, he said.

"The broken immigration system is basically (creating the incentive) for ID theft and the creation of fake IDs," he said. "The risk is that experts in ID theft can turn around and use that skill to drain people's bank accounts and ruin their credit. They can also turn around and sell fake IDs to underage drinkers, unqualified drivers or even terrorists."

The proliferation of fraudulent documents for employment purposes can be traced to the federal government's 20-year-old system for ver- ifying the eligibility of work- ers.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 requires employers to make sure newly hired employees present documents that show they are eligible to work. Employers are required to record that information on an I-9 form.

The system, however, does not require employers to verify that the documents are valid. Under the system, employers are obligated to accept the documents if they look real; turning them down or asking for more documents could put the employer at risk of being accused of discrimination.

That system "gives (unscrupulous employers) plausible deniability that they hired an illegal," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

"It prevents scrupulous employers from doing the right thing because if you look too hard at the documents, he opens himself up to a charge of discrimination."

Scratching the surface

On the afternoon of Aug. 24, 2005, Juan drove to a gas station near 40th Street and McDowell to place an order for three counterfeit documents: a fake green card, driver's license and Social Security card.

Juan agreed to pay a man named Adolfo $150 for the documents with random numbers. Adolfo took Juan to a carwash nearby and snapped Juan's picture with a Polaroid camera.

Two hours later, Adolfo called Juan. The documents were ready. What Adolfo didn't know was that Juan was an undercover police officer.

Adolfo Romero was later arrested, along with other members of a fraudulent-document ring, according to a police report from the Arizona Fraudulent Identification Task Force. The case was among the first under a new effort by the state to crack down on makers of fraudulent documents in Arizona.

Romero, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the report. There was an outstanding federal warrant for his arrest, the report said. He was later deported, according to ICE officials.

In 2005, Gov. Napolitano created the task force to combat the unfettered fake-document trade.

The task force comprises 17 investigators from 10 local, state and federal agencies, among them the Phoenix Police Department, the state Department of Liquor, the state Department of Gaming, the state Department of Transportation, ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol. The Arizona Department of Homeland Security oversees the task force.

Gov. Napolitano has directed the task force to come up with a plan to train employers on how to identify fraudulent documents.

The state also is considering adding more officers and resources to the task force to investigate and prosecute makers of fraudulent documents, spokeswoman Karen Ashley said.

So far, the task force has investigated 93 fraudulent-document organizations and made 217 arrests, Ashley said.

The task force also has seized at least 2,134 documents and bought 491 fraudulent green cards, 487 Social Security cards and 172 driver's licenses.

More alarming, undercover officers on several occasions were able to easily buy phony documents using the names of suspected terrorists and most-wanted criminals, raising national-security concerns.

Todd Lawson, an assistant attorney general who has prosecuted many of the cases, believes the task force has made only a small dent in the thriving trade.

"I think we have scratched the surface but not much further than that," Lawson said.

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzalez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8312.

Arrests reveal inner workings of document ring
Father, son helped man who made IDs on home computer, police say
Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Of the five men accused by police of making and selling phony documents to undocumented immigrants, Jose Otero Cruz was small potatoes.

His job: take orders for fake green cards and Social Security cards to a manufacturer, then deliver the documents after they were done.

In street slang, the 18-year-old was known as a corridor, a runner.

Otero was part of an organization that sold and manufactured 16 fraudulent documents for a total of $520 to an undercover informant and an undercover officer last summer, according to police records from the Arizona Fraudulent Identification Task Force.

When police arrested Otero and four others working for the same outfit, they exposed the inner workings of just one of hundreds of fraudulent-document organizations that authorities believe are thriving in Arizona.

"This was a pretty typical case," said Todd Lawson, an assistant attorney general who prosecuted all five members.

As part of the sting operation, undercover officers bought two green cards for fictitious people from Iraq.

The buy showed how the ring was willing to produce fraudulent documents under any name and for people from any country, raising national security concerns.

Otero's father, Raul Cuicoyatl Otero, 34, and Otero's step-brother, Adrian Martinez, 15, also worked for the organization, according to task force police records.

Along with Carlos Gutierrez-Murillo, 22, they were "dealers" who negotiated prices for counterfeit documents and set up buys, police records say.

Police accused a fifth member of the group, Arturo Contreras Popoca, 25, with being the "manufacturer" of the documents.

Police began buying fraudulent documents from the ring in July 2006 after receiving a tip that a person named "Mike" was passing out business cards for a fictitious cab company called Taxi Cuacuila Huachinago.

The sales took place in several locations around Phoenix, including a strip mall at 35th Avenue and Thomas Road, outside a panaderia on 41st Street and McDowell Road, and in a McDonald's parking lot on 33rd Avenue.

During the undercover sting, officers followed the men to an apartment on 61st Avenue. When authorities raided the apartment last September, they found a computer system that was being used at that very moment to make fraudulent documents, according to po- lice records. The computer was on, and a template for forging documents was on the screen.

Police also found card stock, numerous fraudulent IDs, $275 in cash and two handguns.

Contreras Popoca, the manufacturer, is serving a 3 1/2-year prison sentence in connection with the scheme. He will be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation after his sentence is complete, Lawson said.

Gutierrez-Murillo, one of the dealers, served six months in jail. He was turned over to ICE in March.

Raul Otero, another dealer, is serving a nine-month jail sentence. He will be turned over to ICE afterward.

Martinez, who police say was a dealer, is awaiting trial.

As for Jose Otero Cruz, the runner, he appeared in Maricopa County Superior Court earlier this month. Wearing a black T-shirt and black pants, Otero pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in connection with manufacturing false documents. He will be sentenced Aug. 30 to seven days in jail and up to three years probation.

After that, he will be turned over to ICE for possible deportation, Lawson said