SACRAMENTO — The California driver's license's preeminence as a form of identification has spawned a thriving black market for fraudulent licenses and a major corruption scandal in the state's motor vehicle department, records and interviews show.
In recent years, as the lowly driver's license has been redesigned to make it more tamper-resistant, the card has increasingly become the dominant piece of identification for cashing checks, obtaining credit and securing government services.
This, in turn, has caused the black market value for licenses to soar, providing a catalyst for counterfeiting and bribery of Department of Motor Vehicles employees. Scores of DMV workers in offices from San Diego to Sacramento already have been caught illegally issuing driver's licenses, and officials say many more are under investigation.
"We have, in effect, created a cottage industry," said Steve Solem, a DMV deputy director. "A lot of different changes have been evolving over the years that have made . . . people feel the need to get a driver's license at any cost."
As a result, officials report that:
* Counterfeiting rings operate in every large city in the state, serving up fake licenses of varying quality for sale on the streets. In Los Angeles, business is so competitive that state investigators say a prospective customer can bargain for the best price. A counterfeit identification package, including a license, usually sells for $100, but state agents have paid as little as $35.
* At many of the DMV's busiest offices, scam artists make use of loopholes in procedures to get legitimate licenses, which are then peddled to undocumented immigrants or suspended drivers. In Santa Clara County, a four-month surveillance of DMV offices recently led to 26 felony and 16 misdemeanor arrests for using false documents to obtain driver's licenses.
* In the past two years, 144 DMV employees were fired or otherwise disciplined for illegal activity, primarily driver's license fraud. Most cases were referred for prosecution. The corruption affected more than a third of the DMV offices.
"It's by far the biggest scandal and case of severe corruption in my 16 years here," said state Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), who heads a legislative task force on personal privacy. "It's not a single organized entity. It's a number of entrepreneurial criminal activities."
Late this year, officials plan to begin issuing new licenses with even more sophisticated anti-tampering features to help stem the tide of license-related crime. Among the features will be a tiny ghost image designed to make it harder to substitute one person's photo for another.
"You've got to be as technologically alert as the criminals out there," said DMV Director Sally Reed. "You've got to keep changing the license. You've got to keep changing your practices."
Complicating the task is an overwhelming DMV workload. The department licenses more than 20 million California drivers, issues more than 6 million new licenses and identification cards a year, and operates 172 licensing centers around the state.
How many fake and fraudulent licenses may be in circulation is impossible to calculate. But state officials say the problem is rampant, its impact on society insidious.
A fraudulent driver's license that is used to steal someone's identity can cause years of frustration as the victim suddenly finds his or her credit destroyed. Or the fake license can put a convicted drunk driver back on the highway, where the next accident may cause someone's death.
The role of the driver's license in criminal activity was heightened not only by the technological changes that made it so widely accepted, but by governmental decisions to use it as a tool for punishment.
New laws have made a larger and larger pool of people susceptible to losing their license for activities unrelated to driving. The license can be suspended for spraying graffiti, failure to pay child support, truancy and certain kinds of prostitution. And immigrants who lack proper proof of residency cannot be issued one.
"If you're a drunk driver, you want a fake ID," said Alison Koch, a senior special investigator for the DMV in Sacramento. "If you're in a gang, you want a fake ID. If you're a deadbeat dad, you want a fake ID. If you're an illegal alien, you want a fake ID. If you want to commit check or credit card fraud, you want a fake ID.
"There is hardly a crime out there that doesn't demand some kind of fraudulent identification."
For many minor crimes, she said, a bogus license--even a poor one--is all the fraud artist needs. The quick glance that many business people give the license before cashing a check or accepting a credit card is not enough to discern that it's fake.
For more sophisticated crimes, said Vito Scattaglia, an area commander for DMV investigators in Los Angeles, criminals want the real thing--and this demand for legitimate licenses has put heavy pressure on low-level state employees to commit fraud.