Identity theft growing in undocumented job market

Undocumented workers increasingly are turning to identity theft to gain access to jobs as technology and training make it harder for forged documents to pass muster, experts say.

Buying fraudulent documents costs anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars.

Generally speaking, you get what you pay for, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Tim Counts said.

“Sometimes the documents will only be good enough to fool the person who is buying them,” Counts said.

He said immigration agents sometimes can spot a fake a mile away. They’ve seen documents with misspellings of common words, with odd colorations, or that purport to be forms of identification that don’t even exist, like an international drivers license.

Hundreds of workers without proper documents were charged for falsely using Social Security numbers after a May 12 raid of Postville’s Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. Investigators said 738 of the 968 employee Social Security numbers in a company payroll report were invalid or belonged to other people.

It still is not certain if plant managers will be criminally charged.

To work in the United States, people must prove their identity and work eligibility by presenting a permanent resident card, passport or combination of driver’s license and Social Security card.

Employers get “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration when they submit phony numbers, or numbers that have been issued to other people. They can find fraud even faster by using an Internet-based E-Verify system to check the eligibility of their newly hired employees. Using a stolen identity won’t set off those alarms.

A good fake can be virtually undetectable by people who aren’t trained, especially if forgers have used more easily counterfeited documents to obtain a legal ID.

“We encounter a lot of people with genuine drivers licenses but they were obtained with false information,” Counts said. “If the documents they present are actual documents, law enforcement who encounters them may not look further into it.”

Vendors often sell a set of IDs in one area, retire the numbers for a while, then move to another area and sell those same identities again. Sometimes prisoners or other people “who have little left to lose” sell their own identities, Counts said.

A group of undocumented Agriprocessors employees have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that Agriprocessors acquired false IDs for workers. Counts, who said he couldn’t comment on the Postville investigation or raid, said bringing charges against employers involves sophisticated white-collar crime investigations that can take years.

Employers must accept documents that appear genuine, Counts said. “So the presence of illegal employees doesn’t mean the employer is complicit,” he said.

Iowa City immigration lawyer Dan Vondra said people don’t even have to know they’re using someone’s Social Security number to be guilty of identity theft. He said conviction is punishable by a mandatory two years in prison.

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