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Counter-terrorism investigators find alleged identity theft ring

July 26, 2009|Joel Rubin

On a spring day last year, a Pakistani man came to Shamsha Laiwalla looking for help. He told her he had recently jumped off a cargo ship docked in the Port of Los Angeles and was now looking to buy a new identity.

On the surface, Laiwalla was not an obvious go-to person. She owns a seemingly innocuous vehicle registration company -- one of the thousands in California that take care of DMV-related tasks for people willing to pay for the convenience.

For years, however, the 44-year-old Pakistan native has offered customers a startling menu of illegal services as the architect of an extensive fraud ring involving several DMV employees she regularly paid to produce licenses and other documents, according to Los Angeles police and federal officials. The names of at least some of her alleged clients have surfaced in ongoing federal investigations into national security issues, said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing.

The Pakistani man was, in fact, an undercover detective in the Los Angeles Police Department's counter-terrorism bureau, which is headed by Downing. For $3,500, Laiwalla told the detective, she could get a valid California driver's license with his photo, an expertly forged birth certificate and a Social Security card, police say. All the documents would bear his new name, Francisco Gonzalez Rios.

Laiwalla recently pleaded guilty to federal charges of identity theft stemming from the investigation and is awaiting sentencing. Last week, prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed 11 state charges against her. They also charged 13 of her alleged accomplices.

She pleaded not guilty to the state charges Wednesday. Her attorney, Roger Rosen, declined to discuss the case, saying he had not had a chance to review the allegations.

LAPD counter-terrorism officers, who recounted the undercover operation in interviews with The Times, said she has not been connected directly to any known terrorist organizations.

But her tangential ties to a recent case, they said, underscore the risks posed by such security breaches. In 2007, one of Laiwalla's contacts altered DMV records for members of a criminal organization that dealt drugs and sold counterfeit goods in L.A.'s garment district, police say. The money from the enterprise is suspected of having helped fund Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant Shiite Muslim group that operates in Lebanon.

That Laiwalla hails from one of the world's epicenters for Islamic terror groups has added a level of concern for law enforcement officials. According to an affidavit filed in the federal case, she told the undercover officer that "she has helped numerous individuals from her native Pakistan."

"We have no idea how many thousands of people might be out there with these documents," said LAPD Det. Mark Severino, who helped run the investigation. "If we're talking about counter-terrorism issues, that's a scary thought. How do you track a man with a valid license and the name Rios?"

Laiwalla allegedly offered to sell undercover officers valid licenses from Nevada or Washington, indicating that her reach extended to other states. And Downing says it is almost certain that other people are running similar operations in California and elsewhere. In 2005, clerks at Virginia DMV offices and others were charged with helping more than 1,000 people falsely obtain driver's licenses over a five-year period. Another breach was uncovered in the Bay Area the same year.

Gregory Huber, commander of the DMV's internal affairs branch, acknowledged the challenge of staying ahead of criminally-minded employees. With roughly 9,000 people scattered across scores of field offices throughout the state, identifying and preventing suspicious activity is a daunting task. "There is always going to be a criminal element on the outside that is going to be looking to exploit weaknesses in our system," he said. "Our employees don't get paid very much. The temptation is always there."

Although the services Laiwalla is alleged to have offered might seem relatively harmless, they exemplify the type of vulnerability terror groups use to their advantage.

"People involved in terrorism are not reinventing the wheel," Severino said. "If they need documents or whatnot, they are going to use the criminal enterprises that already exist." Severino and others noted that the 9/11 hijackers fraudulently obtained driver's licenses from Florida, California, Arizona and Virginia.

Laiwalla first fell under suspicion in June 2007, when an FBI agent working on an unrelated case heard about her alleged dealings with DMV employees, according to court documents. The FBI launched an investigation and the following year merged it with one being run by a team of LAPD counter-terrorism detectives and investigators from the DMV and district attorney's office. Over the next eight months, LAPD officers conducted 16 undercover operations as they followed the various tentacles of Laiwalla's alleged network, Severino said.

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