Counterfeiters can be prosecuted in federal or state court, and can face a maximum of three years in state prison for possessing fake IDs and a minimum of five years for manufacturing them, Flores said. Until recently, however, prosecutors could not charge counterfeiters for possession of document-making equipment. A state bill, which takes effect in January, closes that loophole by making it a crime to possess scanners, computers and printers with the intent to make fake IDs.
Despite possible lengthy sentences, counterfeiters usually serve just a few years behind bars if found guilty, authorities said. Many are convicted only of misdemeanors, resulting in short stays in county jail.
"They are not getting the time that they should," LAPD Officer Henry Covarrubias said. "They are getting a slap on the hand."
Even with enhanced powers, law enforcement agencies face obstacles in combating the phony ID trade.
The counterfeiters conduct counter-surveillance, learning what cars investigators drive and using cellphones to quickly spread the word. To trip up authorities, they often use two or three middlemen to place and deliver orders. And they pay gangs for permission to stand on street corners in exchange for protection.
But the computerization of the industry has been the biggest challenge for law enforcement, making it easier for people to make fake IDs -- and harder for police to catch them. Martinez, the deputy city attorney, said the technology has created a "boom" in the business.
"These people are computer savvy," said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations in Los Angeles. "It's not like it was in the good old days.... The crooks are keeping up with the times as well as law enforcement."
In the past, counterfeiters needed to know how to operate a printing press. Now, all they need to know is how to click and print. The software can be easily copied, Jeffery said, and the new technology makes it easier to produce a wider selection of documents, including student ID cards, proof of auto insurance, vehicle pink slips and Mexican birth certificates.
In addition, the smaller equipment makes it easier for counterfeiters to hide mills. "How long does it take to unplug a computer and printer and move from location A to location B?" Jeffery said. "A matter of minutes."
Authorities believe most of the document labs throughout the country trace to two criminal organizations. Earlier this year, federal grand juries in Denver indicted leaders of both groups, and investigators discovered 20 mills and tens of thousands of blank phony documents. One of the rings had franchises around the country, including in Los Angeles, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Several Los Angeles mills also serve customers throughout the country, investigators said. They have found order forms or ID cards from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.
Often, the counterfeiters are deported, but then they sneak back across the border to resume working in the industry. One man was convicted in Los Angeles five years ago for making and distributing fake ID documents, deported to Mexico and then rearrested in the Denver case this year.
Many of the area's counterfeiters are illegal immigrants, recruited from Mexico or Central America or handpicked when they arrive to work in the industry.
"For every one runner we take off the streets," said Jerry Baik, an assistant supervising city attorney in Los Angeles, "there are probably lines of them waiting to take their place."