Adrian Flores was working the identity theft beat as a police detective in Los Angeles County when he realized that he too had become a victim.
First, he answered a phone call about an outstanding bill for furniture store purchases that he hadn't made. Then he received several letters from the Internal Revenue Service, including one demanding $40,000 in back taxes on income he hadn't earned. When he ran his credit, the report showed he owed money at a hospital where he had never been treated.
Flores later learned that at least one of the culprits was an illegal immigrant working in Utah for Swift & Co. meat processing that had been one of the targets of a massive raid by federal immigration agents, who arrested 1,274 people in six states in December 2006.
"It rocks your world," he said. "It's like a little ball of string. It gets thicker and thicker and thicker as it goes along."
Under pressure from federal authorities to verify their workers' legal status, more employers are checking the validity of Social Security numbers, and that has caused many illegal immigrants to use stolen rather than made-up numbers to get jobs, immigration officials said.
"It used to be that we would only see people come in with purely bogus documents," said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "More and more we are seeing real people, real victims."
Although the agency does not break out identity theft statistics, Myers said, "we are definitely seeing a trend."
To better protect their businesses, more employers are using the Department of Homeland Security's Basic Pilot program, which enables them to check the validity of Social Security numbers online. But Basic Pilot doesn't detect identity theft. As long as the name and Social Security number are legitimate, the online system will indicate the person using them is authorized to work.
Word of this weakness in the system has spread quickly among illegal immigrants and the document theft rings that cater to them. Thieves will dig through trash cans or scan the Internet looking for Social Security numbers. Sometimes, criminals or homeless people are willing to sell their identity documents, Myers said. There also have been cases in which employers provide their workers with stolen numbers, Homeland Security authorities said.
The majority of immigrants using fake identification don't know that the Social Security numbers belong to real people, said Marielena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. They are just trying to find a way to get a job, she said.
"Most workers are buying documents they believe to be false," she said. "There isn't really any intention of stealing someone's identity."
Yet there are victims.
"Identity theft, whether it is by someone who is here illegally or legally, it is still the same craziness," said Linda Foley, founder of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center. "It temporarily turns their life upside down."
Foley said she has seen one person's identity used by as many as 20 people. Often, even if the government may be aware of the problem, the victim won't discover that his identity was stolen until he receives a demand for back taxes or when he tries to buy a house or a car and realizes his credit has been destroyed.
"There is no automatic red flag to notify victims," said Betsy Broder, an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission.
This spring, at the direction of President Bush, the FTC and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales issued a report on identity theft in general and a strategic plan to attack it. The voluminous report singled out the issue of immigrant-related identity theft and recommended an increase in prosecutions.
ICE launched 11 task forces last year and six this spring targeting immigrant-related ID fraud. More than 540 investigations have been opened, and so far 243 people have been convicted of various fraud and immigration violations since April 2006.
The largest identity theft bust was the one last year at the Swift plants; it followed a 10-month investigation triggered by allegations that illegal immigrants were using the stolen identities of U.S. citizens. More than 300 illegal immigrants were prosecuted as a result of the investigation.
There have also been smaller cases, including the indictment last month of 10 former workers at Fresh Del Monte Produce in Portland, Ore., on charges of possession of a fraudulent immigration document or Social Security fraud. According to ICE, an investigation in that case showed that dozens of employees at American Staffing Resources Inc., which hires workers for the fruit and vegetable processing plant, were using Social Security numbers that belonged to real people. Some of the victims were children; others were elderly and receiving benefits. Some of the numbers had belonged to people who had died.
"The task force approach was really the first concentrated, nationwide effort to attack the problem," said Myers, the ICE official.