Puerto Ri­cans tar­geted in iD theft schemes

Govern­ment hopes to com­bat mas­sive fraud by void­ing birth cer­tifi­cates, is­su­ing new ones

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Danica Coto

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Born in a U.S. ter­ri­tory where he has lived all his life, Jose Mar­rero Rivera didn’t know his name and so­cial se­cu­rity num­ber were rack­ing up thou­sands of dol­lars in un­paid charges in Chicago and Mi­ami.

The snack bar worker is one of thou­sands of Puerto Ri­cans caught up in a lu­cra­tive doc­u­ment-fraud scheme to hide il­le­gal im­mi­grants in the United States. They’re Amer­i­can cit­i­zens with His­panic sur­names. And their records — kept loosely in schools or church rec­to­ries, where they are easy to steal — draw as much as $6,000 on the black mar­ket.

Only when po­lice showed up at Mar­rero Rivera’s air­port food stand to ar­rest him for car theft did he re­al­ize that iden­tity thieves were up­end­ing his life.

“All the in­for­ma­tion, all of it, the driver’s li­cense, the So­cial Se­cu­rity, my ad­dress, was mine,” he said of the war­rant. “I was shocked. I told them sim­ply that it wasn’t me.”

Doc­u­ments stolen from Puerto Rico have shown up in fraud-ring busts in Delaware and Ohio and im­mi­gra­tion raids on meat­pack­ing plants from Texas to Florida. No govern­ment or law en­force­ment of­fi­cial can put a dol­lar amount on the il­le­gal trade, but doc­u­ments are so valu­able that ad­dicts on the is­land trade their own doc­u­ments for drugs.

“Birth cer­tifi­cates have be­come le­gal ten­der,” said Ken­neth McClin­tock, Puerto Rico’s sec­re­tary of state.

The is­land govern­ment’s only an­swer so far is to void ev­ery Puerto Ri­can birth cer­tifi­cate as of July 1 and re­quire about 5 mil­lion peo­ple — in­clud­ing 1.4 mil­lion on the U.S. main­land — to reap­ply for new ones with se­cu­rity fea­tures. New birth cer­tifi­cates started be­ing is­sued Thurs­day, and all old birth cer­tifi­cates will be an­nulled by Sept. 30.

But no one can guar­an­tee the mass in­con­ve­nience will solve the prob­lem. Un­told num­bers of pass­ports, driver’s li­censes and other doc­u­ments is­sued to hold­ers of false birth cer­tifi­cates are still valid.

The law only aims to make it harder to get false doc­u­ments in the fu­ture, but it does noth­ing to tar­get those al­ready in cir­cu­la­tion. And a per­son hold­ing a stolen birth cer­tifi­cate could con­ceiv­ably ap­ply to re­ceive one of the new ones, which will have spe­cial seals and be printed on counterfeit-proof paper — though they would have to present other per­sonal data that they might not have, McClin­tock said.

“We had to take dras­tic mea­sures,” he said. “The new law does not pre­tend to solve all the prob­lems. What it aims to do is

Con­tin­ued from A13 re­solve the mas­sive theft prob­lem.”

The prob­lem stems from the Puerto Ri­can tra­di­tion of re­quir­ing birth cer­tifi­cates to en­roll in schools or join churches, sports team or other groups, which keep them in un­se­cured of­fices or draw­ers. The new law void­ing all birth cer­tifi­cates pro­hibits such groups from keep­ing copies.

“I think peo­ple no­ticed that no one was pay­ing at­ten­tion to those doc­u­ments,” said a Puerto Rico-based FBI agent on the cases, who re­quested anonymity be­cause the agent works un­der cover. “In the fu­ture, this could be linked to ev­ery­thing, even ter­ror­ism. I don’t doubt that it could go that way.”

But the bulk of the busi­ness now is sell­ing to peo­ple who are liv­ing and work­ing il­le­gally in the U.S.

The most val­ued pack­age comes with a birth cer­tifi­cate, a So­cial Se­cu­rity card and a driver’s li­cense — called a “tripleta” af­ter Puerto Rico’s renown street sandwich stuffed with three types of meat, said Roberto Es­co­bar of the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fice in Puerto Rico.

“They can cus­tom or­der: ‘I need two chil­dren and five adults,’ ” the FBI agent added.

Iden­tity-theft rings have been busted in Puerto Rico and sev­eral states, with one ac­cused of steal­ing the data of 7,000 pub­lic school chil­dren af­ter break­ing into more than 50 is­land schools over two years. In an­other case, an em­ployee with Puerto Rico’s Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles is ac­cused of steal­ing 1,200 driver’s li­cense re­newal forms.

The new law comes at a time when Lati­nos are be­ing in­creas­ingly scru­ti­nized for their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus and de­ported in large num­bers. It’s caus­ing prob­lems for some Puerto Ri­cans who say their birth cer­tifi­cates al­ready have been re­jected when they ap­plied for driver’s li­censes. Oth­ers have been re­quired to an­swer ques­tions about Puerto Rico to prove their cit­i­zen­ship, said Ce­sar Perales, pres­i­dent of Lati­noJus­tice PRLDEF, a civil rights group.

Some don’t know the an­swers be­cause they have lived on the main­land so long.

“There’s now this cloud over Puerto Ri­can birth cer­tifi­cates,” Perales said. “The tim­ing, it seems to me, could not have been worse.”

Car­los Morales, who lives with his fam­ily in Or­lando, Fla., is among those who must reap­ply for a birth cer­tifi­cate.

Two years ago, some­one filed a tax re­turn us­ing his So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. Morales, who had been mar­ried for nearly 30 years, tried to ex­plain why an­other woman claim­ing to be his wife filed the re­turn.

“My wife even thought (I had) some­body else: ‘Who is this woman try­ing to get five grand?’ ” he re­called her ask­ing.

Mar­rero Rivera, the air­port food worker, avoided ar­rest for car theft be­cause he didn’t match the po­lice photo of the sus­pect. He re­ported a case of iden­tity theft in 2004 af­ter he ap­plied for a loan to buy fur­ni­ture and got turned down. But noth­ing has hap­pened in the six years since then — ex­cept that more peo­ple started us­ing his in­for­ma­tion.

Be­sides steal­ing cars, peo­ple us­ing his iden­tity de­faulted on loans in Mi­ami and fell be­hind on credit card pay­ments in Chicago.

The 32-year-old mar­ried fa­ther of two called po­lice a year af­ter fil­ing his iden­tity fraud com­plaint to ask about progress. He said lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were dis­mis­sive.

“They told me, ‘There are cases more im­por­tant than that lit­tle case,’ ” he said.

Mean­while, his credit has been ru­ined.

“They won’t even lend me money for an ice cream cone,” he said. “There’s a crim­i­nal who knows ev­ery­thing about my life, and I know noth­ing about his.”

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