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California and the West

DMV Policies Aid Crime, Study Says

Probe: Poor background checks of workers and policy allowing fictitious names on licenses are blamed for fraud.


SACRAMENTO — State policies, including one that permits drivers to be licensed under fictitious names, make it too easy for criminals to get false licenses and use them to steal the identities of people with good credit, a state investigative report said Monday.

The joint staff task force on government oversight said the Department of Motor Vehicles should be required to reexamine its policies and close loopholes that allow criminals to get legitimate licenses under false pretenses.

"The integrity of the driver's license as reliable identification has been severely damaged," said state Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), who released the report. "Identity thieves . . . are busy at work. It's time for the state to be more aggressive in how it protects the privacy of its residents."

The report comes as the DMV combats a major scandal over rising driver's license-related crime, including the bribery of scores of its own employees.

As the agency has taken steps in recent years to make its license more tamper-resistant, the DMV card has become the most widely accepted form of identification in the state. That acceptance has enhanced it as a tool for criminals engaging in check, credit card and bank fraud and has increased its value on the black market.

To meet the demand for licenses, criminal rings resort either to counterfeiting or using loopholes in DMV procedures to get legitimate licenses. At some DMV offices, they have paid low-level state employees to issue licenses to undeserving drivers. Officials say that 144 DMV employees have been fired or otherwise disciplined in the last two years for illegal activities, mostly driver's license fraud.

DMV spokesman William Gengler said the department had already been working on tightening its procedures when the task force issued its report.

Beginning April 15, he said, the DMV will have an electronic link with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check the status of immigrants. By the end of 1998 or mid-1999, he said, the department hopes to have a similar link with the Social Security Administration to allow double-checking of Social Security numbers.

At the end of the year, he said, the DMV will begin issuing a new license that will include additional security features.

"We take the report seriously and we'll look at the steps that Sen. Peace has recommended," Gengler said. "We will take whatever measures are necessary to increase the integrity of the California driver's license."

The report criticized the department for failing to conduct background checks of new employees who are given access to its computer files, for failing to check Social Security numbers and for relying too heavily on birth certificates as the sole proof of identification. It said birth certificates are too easily obtained, especially in states such as California, where anyone can get a certified copy of anyone else's birth record.

The report said California was the only state that permitted drivers to use fictitious names on their license for an extra $12 fee.

Richard Steffen, who wrote the report, said the practice seemed to have been created years ago to allow celebrities to use their stage names, but it opened the door to fraud, even though the driver's real name was on file in the DMV computer.

"This policy is the reason five Santa Clauses have been licensed to drive in California," the report said.

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