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The Cutting Edge

Internet Growth Aids Counterfeit-ID Business

Cyberspace: Online access to makers and templates accounts for about 30% of all fake documents in the U.S., experts say.

May 25, 2000|MARCY GORDON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

On sale online: fake passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, driver's licenses, college diplomas, press credentials and even IDs for police officers and FBI agents. They're fraudulent but authentic-looking enough to enable users to steal people's identities, get loans or convince enemies they're being arrested.

You can buy them online, or you can make them yourself. A 23-year-old convicted felon told a Senate panel last week how he created phony documents using a computer at a public library and public government records online. He used the bogus documents to get $59,000 in car loans.

The new and growing Internet phenomenon accounts for about 30% of all fake ID documents in this country, according to some law enforcement officials.

"The availability of false identification on the Internet is a . . . growing problem, to which we plan to devote additional resources and attention," Secret Service Director Brian Stafford told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigative subcommittee.

There are three levels of fake ID procurement, subcommittee investigators found in a five-month undercover inquiry. First, some Web sites sell bogus, real-looking documents in the customer's name. Others sell high-quality computer files, called templates, that allow customers to make their own phony documents. One such site, operated by a 21-year-old college student, charged $14.95 a month for templates. He rang up about $8,000 in sales from mid-October to mid-December last year, the Senate investigators found. Another Web site operator told authorities he made about $600,000 a year.

The false documents offered on some sites are of "shockingly high quality," said K. Lee Blalack II, the panel's chief counsel and staff director. The fake IDs often contain holograms, magnetic stripes and other security features on genuine documents to prevent counterfeiting.

"The Internet allows those specializing in the sale of counterfeit identification to reach a broader market of potential buyers than they ever could by standing on a street corner in a shady part of town. They can sell their products with virtual anonymity," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the subcommittee's chairwoman.

In the third category are do-it-yourself counterfeiters such as Thomas W. Seitz, who used the phony documents to get car loans.

"I realize what I did was illegal, but I also must say that it was not very difficult to accomplish," he testified.

Seitz, originally from New Brunswick, N.J., is serving a three-year state prison term for theft by deception and forgery. He also has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of bank fraud and is awaiting sentencing in Florida.

It sounded very easy, coming from Seitz, who has used computers since sixth grade and has worked as a network engineer. He explained matter-of-factly how he used the Internet to get names, Social Security numbers and addresses of people listed in company filings on the Securities and Exchange Commission's Web site.

In one case last year, Seitz used the personal data of an electronics company executive to create a birth certificate, driver's license and W-2 income tax withholding form in the executive's name. From there, it was easy for him to get car loans on the Net using other people's identities. With a check and photocopied fake driver's license in hand, he was able to drive away a new $40,000 Honda, one of the priciest cars on the lot.

The SEC does not require Social Security numbers in corporate filings, but some official SEC forms have, in the past, included boxes for the numbers that can be provided voluntarily.

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