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Agents Tracking Fake Social Security Cards

Probe: Terrorist attacks prompt scrutiny of those who bought numbers from Southland ring.

April 04, 2002|RICH CONNELL and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal investigators hunting for potential terrorists have been poring over hundreds of fraudulent Social Security numbers generated by a Southern California ring that catered mostly to Middle Eastern immigrants.

Three people have pleaded guilty in the scheme, broken up before the Sept. 11 attacks, including a Jordanian national who worked in security at Los Angeles International Airport and a U.S. government employee who tapped a secure federal computer to procure the government-issued cards, court records and interviews show.

Over a 14-month period beginning in early 1999, about 1,000 Social Security numbers were sold to illegal immigrants and foreign nationals, authorities say.

Although it was one of the most extensive Social Security scams involving Middle Eastern immigrants uncovered in recent years, the case drew little public notice. However, within federal law enforcement circles, interest intensified immediately after the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The reaction was, 'Let's find out who these people are--what ... they are doing and where they are,'" said one law enforcement official.

The FBI and other agencies declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. But law enforcement sources who requested anonymity said the wide-ranging inquiry has been expanded from an organized-crime unit to include agents chasing leads in the federal government's anti-terrorism investigation.

"We are well into tracking all these guys down," one official said.

The sources declined to say how many cardholders have been arrested or deported. But at least two of the names used on the cards match those of individuals indicted in Los Angeles weeks after the September attacks on charges of Social Security and immigration fraud, records show.

No links to the Sept. 11 skyjackers or to suspected terrorist groups have been found so far, officials said. But they note that a number of individuals still must be located and some have scattered to other states and beyond.

"There are a lot of numbers to track down and [some] people have left the country," said one official.

Among the intriguing leads in the case files are several names on the fraudulent cards that, while common in the Middle East, are similar to aliases used by some of the Sept. 11 skyjackers. Confidential investigative records obtained by The Times after the East Coast attacks, for example, indicate that the skyjackers' suspected ringleader, Mohamed Atta, used numerous variations of his name, including Mohamed Mohamed El Amir Awad.

Amir Awad was the name on one card sent to a mail drop used by the ring, records show.

The L.A.-based fraud investigation--and the broader war on terrorism--underscore gaping holes in government efforts to stop bogus Social Security cards from being issued and legitimate numbers from being misused. Most of the skyjackers had multiple identities, and although it is not clear where or how they did it, six of the skyjackers are suspected of fraudulently obtaining Social Security numbers, according to recent congressional testimony.

"It has become quickly apparent just how instrumental the use of a fraudulent [card] has been for these individuals," James G. Huse, inspector general of the Social Security Administration, recently told a congressional panel. "[They] rely on aliases and assumed identities in order to integrate themselves anonymously into our society."

Social Security fraud also was cited repeatedly as a reason for holding many of the hundreds of detainees rounded up in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Theft and misuse of Social Security numbers are soaring so rapidly that it is impossible to fully gauge the scope of the problem, authorities say. One barometer, a Social Security Administration fraud hotline, has seen a fivefold jump in reports of misuse from 1998 to 2001, when it reached 65,000 calls.

One recent report to Congress warned that systems designed to stop fraud are incapable of spotting misuse that may be connected to terrorist activity.

Scheme Offered Cards With 'Clean' Numbers

The Los Angeles investigation was one of more than 50 nationwide in the last five years involving workers inside the Social Security agency.

The conspiracy took in nearly $800,000, prosecutors estimated, by offering one of the most valued types of fake cards--those with "clean" numbers generated by the government's own computers. Unless such numbers are identified and flagged by authorities, there is little chance they will be detected by credit agencies, border agents or anyone else. They are often used to secure jobs by immigrants who are prohibited from working while in the U.S.

The numbers were churned out at a rate of about 15 a week and sold for roughly $800 each, records show.

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