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Fake ID Trade Makes a Name for Itself

Long a low priority for police, forgers may face a crackdown when new law takes effect Jan. 1.

November 29, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Social Security cards run about $20, green cards about $70 and a California driver's license between $60 and $250.

The price jumps up for higher-quality documents, such as IDs with magnetic strips containing real information -- often from victims of identity theft.

As the demand for counterfeit IDs skyrockets, the criminal organizations that produce them are increasingly relying on sophisticated technology to expand their operations and thwart authorities.

"You name it, they can make it," said Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Arturo Martinez, who specializes in fraudulent document cases.

Even though Los Angeles is considered the epicenter of the fake ID trade, for years the problem didn't register as a high priority for an already burdened police force. The lack of consistent enforcement allowed the underground industry to build up until it was "out of control," said LAPD Officer Fernando Flores.

That changed in 2003, when the Los Angeles Police Department assigned two Rampart Division officers to crack down on counterfeiters. Both the city attorney and the L.A. County district attorney said they had focused more resources in the last two years on the phony ID industry. And now, equipped with a new law that will make it a crime to possess equipment used to create fake IDs, prosecutors hope to put even more counterfeiters behind bars.

But law enforcement officials acknowledge that making a dent in the thriving and highly profitable trade of fake identification documents won't be easy, primarily because the problem is so widespread.


On a typical weekday near MacArthur Park, west of downtown Los Angeles, dozens of vendors peddle IDs and guide customers into photo shops. "Mica! Mica!" they say -- using the Spanish slang for laminated ID cards -- as they hold their hands up in the shape of a card.

When Jorge Flores crossed the border illegally from Mexico three years ago, he applied for a job as a cook. The employer asked him for his papers. Other immigrants directed Flores to Alvarado Street, where he bought fake Social Security and green cards.

"When you first get here, you don't know where to go," said Flores, 25, who lives in Huntington Park. "The people who have been here a long time tell you. Everybody knows you can buy papers in MacArthur Park."

Mica mills first appeared in Los Angeles decades ago to serve a ballooning population of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But these days, gang members and parolees eager to conceal their identities are also keeping counterfeiters busy, officers said.

In fact, authorities say the rise in identity theft is increasing demand for fraudulent documents. The LAPD's Flores estimated that 95% of the fake cards they recover can be traced to theft victims.

"Twenty years ago, it was students looking to go into bars and immigrants looking to work," said LAPD Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, who supervises investigations into fraudulent documents. "The focus has changed.... We are seeing a lot more criminals."

LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck said the main reason the department didn't previously pursue the fake ID trade was because Rampart officers were focused on reducing violent crime in MacArthur Park, leaving few resources to go after mica mills. St. Pierre said officers were also limited by an LAPD policy preventing officers from enforcing immigration laws.

In 2002, Rampart officers didn't arrest a single counterfeiter. By contrast, they apprehended 73 people in 2003 and 84 in 2004. Through Nov. 15 of this year, officers made 124 arrests.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also working to break up counterfeiting mills. The agency cited 30 arrests, 16 indictments and 14 convictions in the Los Angeles area in fiscal 2005. Although most of the investigations focus on MacArthur Park, agents have also shut down operations in Huntington Park, Canoga Park and Whittier.

Two of the most recent busts occurred in Orange County. After a series of undercover buys this fall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents traced the purchased ID cards to five mills -- four in Santa Ana and one in Anaheim. They arrested 15 Mexican and Salvadoran men, many with prior convictions for similar crimes.

In addition to old-fashioned printing presses, laminators and typewriters, the agents found computers, laser printers, scanners and software. They also discovered various IDs, including three versions of green cards, matricula consular cards (an ID issued by the Mexican consulate to undocumented immigrants in the United States), Mexican driver's licenses and Los Angeles County birth certificates.

"It was a one-stop shop for anyone who needs a new identity," said Dwayne Angebrandt, a supervisory special agent who oversaw the Orange County investigations.

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