The purchase of fake IDs, long a problem on the streets, has invaded cyberspace to become the latest headache for state and federal authorities.
Now accessible through the click of a mouse, a number of Web sites offer replicas of some of the most coveted and sensitive personal documents: state identification cards, driver's licenses, birth certificates and Social Security cards, all guaranteed to look like their legitimate counterparts.
And boy, do they look good.
"The ones we've seen are better than what's [sold] on the street," said Marissa Hernandez, a section chief in Los Angeles for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The trend has put new enforcement strains on agencies such as the INS and the state Department of Motor Vehicles, already overwhelmed with the scope of more traditional counterfeiting operations.
Street sales of forged documents have reached ominous proportions in the Los Angeles area, authorities say. In the last two years alone, INS agents have seized close to 3 million counterfeit documents from just one organized crime ring. The confiscated material, which included green cards, Social Security cards, driver's licenses and proof-of-insurance certificates, had a street value of more than $140 million.
The extent of Web-based sales is unknown, but authorities are well aware of the budding industry's potential.
"It's a big moneymaker," one DMV official said.
And, as is clear from their Web sites, various operations are not shy about flaunting their skills as counterfeiters.
Boasts one on the Web: "We continue to be a major headache to several DMV and law enforcement agencies around the world. We can provide you with all the illegal and fake photo IDs that you are not by U.S. law [allowed] to have."
Another Web site advertises: "We will provide you with . . . exact novelty replicas in every detail of the current [state] IDs. . . . We do whatever security measure that state has (i.e. UV, watermark, hologram, seal, reflective laminate coating)."
A scroll down the page reveals samples of very realistic driver's licenses, Social Security cards and birth certificates, at $40 (for the Social Security card) to about $85 (for licenses and birth certificates).
The site says it sells the documents with a tiny sticker that labels them as "novelty" identification. But after that disclaimer, the user is told that "if you choose to peel it off . . . that is entirely up to you and you assume all responsibility/liability after that point."
Compounding the enforcement problem, most of these operations are based outside the U.S., Hernandez said. Several being investigated by the agency are in Canada.
"We're looking at [Web-based operations] more and more, working with the FBI . . . and we're working a lot with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," she said.
The DMV is equally aware of the trend, said Vito Scattaglia, commander of the agency's division of investigations.
"It's a big problem. We have a team of investigators, all they do is computer-type [analyses]," he said.
Los Angeles Is the Hub of Counterfeiters
Yet in the cat-and-mouse game against counterfeiters, documents sold over the Internet still represent a relatively minor element, said Hernandez. In a way, the fake IDs' sophisticated nature turns into a shortcoming, since they are harder to produce in large numbers and must be sold at higher prices to offset production costs.
And at least for now, access to them is somewhat limited.
"People have to have a computer, they have to know their way around the Internet" to purchase the documents online, Hernandez said.
Although the future might produce a change, Web-advertised documents for now lag behind the broader threat of mass-produced documents sold on the streets. Most agencies are therefore directing the bulk of their resources to halting the production of less elaborate forged documents, whose sales across the country constitute the lifeblood of a multimillion-dollar underground industry.
The hub of counterfeit operations is in Los Angeles, most likely because 52% of the nation's 5.8 million illegal immigrants live in the area, INS officials said. According to INS Special Agent Louis Rodi, local counterfeiting rings produce enough documents to "provide one to just about every illegal immigrant in Los Angeles."
These groups sell their wares mainly through street vendors, who stand inconspicuously on busy sidewalks looking for the next costumer--an illegal immigrant desperate for a job, a seeker of a false identity, an underage youngster hoping to get into a bar.
The street vendor is but the tip of the counterfeiting iceberg. He takes orders from buyers, asks for their biographical information and a photo, and negotiates the price of the document. Forty dollars will buy a forged driver's license in Los Angeles, for example. And often the documents are sold in sets, so a kit with a fake green card, Social Security card and driver's license can cost $70 to $100, INS agents said.