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THE SAFETY ZONE

Web Identity Crisis Looms

March 06, 2000|SYLVIA PAGAN WESTPHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

"The ones we've seen are better than what's [sold] on the street," said Marissa Hernandez, a section chief for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The cybertrend 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 Southern California, authorities say. In the last two years alone, INS agents have seized nearly 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.

And as is clear from their Web sites, some 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 documents costing from $40 for a Social Security card to about $85 for driver's 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.

Documents sold over the Internet still represent a relatively minor element, said Hernandez. 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 Southern California, 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."

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