As soon as one arrest plugs a hole, other fake ID suppliers emerge
Storm Lake Police have been engaged in several recent cases of identity theft and faked IDs - and as soon as they law enforcement breaks one case, it seems that another producer of false documents pops up.
"We have been successful getting to some of the individuals producing the documents, but as with drugs, when you plug one hole, there are plenty more ready to step up to the plate," says Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser. "There is money to be made in this crime, and with new computer and printer technology becoming more available all the time, these people are putting out some very convincing-looking documents."
In cases seen in Storm Lake, people have paid hundreds of dollars for a false document, he said.
Sometimes a clerk or employer will notice a discrepancy, but often a case comes to light when a person takes a job using a fake ID in Storm Lake, and their earnings show up on the income taxable earnings for the true owner of the identity, Prosser notes.
Three basic types of problems are being seen in the Storm Lake area:
1. Counterfeit Social Security cards and other documents produced using the names and Social Security numbers of real people who live elsewhere in the country.
2. Real credit cards, driver's licenses and other forms of identification that have been stolen and then sold, allowing the buyer to pose as the victim.
3. Forged documents using made up names and numbers, which often may look legitimate enough to get the purchaser by - at least until an employer or someone else traces a Social Security number.
One of the few ways to control the spread of the lucrative form of crime is for people to better protect their identities.
"For example, when you are using your credit card, never let someone walk away from you holding your card. And if your purse or wallet is stolen or lost, report it immediately and inform all of the proper authorities about a missing driver's license, checks, credit cards, Social Security card and so on," Prosser said.
Another way that identities are being stolen is through fake solicitation. The criminals contact people by e-mail or phone, offering some deal and asking for their credit card or other identification numbers.
"This happens especially to elderly people who may be very trusting. With the technologies in use today, they don't even need your credit card - just the numbers," Prosser said.
In some cases, criminals are reportedly making use of cell phones with built-in cameras. While a person is checking out in a store with a credit card, the criminal snaps a photo of the card over the victim's shoulder while pretending to text message, for example. Later, they retrieve and enlarge the photo and take the numbers from the card.
"They continue to get more creative," Prosser said.
While the use of false identification is certainly not limited to any ethnic group, the producers of the fake documents often target undocumented immigrants who need U.S. identification to gain employment.
"They take advantage of immigrants, of individuals trying to locate here, to get gainful employment. They know employers look at Social Security numbers to see if they are valid - that is why they steal real names and numbers in those cases," Prosser explains.
"In some cases, we will have someone living and working under an assumed identity here in Storm Lake, while the real person with that identity doesn't even know what is taking place," he said.
The criminal faking of IDs is a trend Storm Lake Police have been watching for five years or more. "It seems like it goes in spurts," Prosser said.
"People make their living stealing and selling cards and documents. People make a living aquiring the numbers and counterfeiting cards. People make a living selling the counterfeit documents that look pretty legitimate."
Police have been able to track down some of the people who provide counterfeit documents. It is not known if there are any current such operations in the local area.
In one case, Storm Lake police worked with authorities in Minnesota to trace fake birth certificates that were coming in from overseas and being sold in California, with Buena Vista County listed as the false place of birth.
Why Buena Vista County? In some cases, it may just be chosen by random, Prosser said. In others, producers are savvy enough to choose locations where there are higher numbers of transient worker populations to avoid suspicion when immigrants begin showing up with papers.
"In some case, a person coming into the Storm Lake area may actually make a request for a counterfeit document referring to Buena Vista County," he said.
When people are caught using false identification in Storm Lake, they are normally charged under identity theft or forged document statutes. If they are in the country illegally, federal immigration authorities are notified, and police ask for a detainer to be put on them.
However, it is not uncommon for the detainers to be lifted and the suspect allowed to be released pending a trial. In some cases, it is negotiated for the suspect to accept deportation instead of going through the criminal system.
"We find that some have been detained before. When we have a person who has entered the country multiple times illegally, we find that the ICE (Immigration and Customes Enforcement) tends to pay more attention to them," Prosser said.
This is one form of crime that is frustrating to try to prevent, and local authorities don't expect it to go away any time soon, Prosser says.
"Unfortunately, there's a market for it."
Avoiding Identity Theft
Date: Thursday, February 28, 2008
Time: 3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Location: Siebens Forum Hanson 8
Heather Norris from Iowa Student Loan will provide students with information to protect themselves against the fastest growing crime in the United States. Students learn about ways thieves may attempt to steal a person's identity. Tips on safeguarding personal and financial information are also discussed. This is sponsored by the Office of Financial Assistance.