At the end of October, the Department of Motor Vehicles had recorded 373 arrests for driver’s license fraud, which includes both manufacturing and possessing the bogus IDs. That’s a larger number in 10 months than the 294 arrests made during all of last year.
The state Alcohol Law Enforcement Division closed down a “document lab” in a Beaufort County trailer park a week ago. One suspect arrested, Raul Alexander Pinto-Gonzales, had been previously deported and is awaiting deportation again.
Also last week, state and local police shut down an operation in south Charlotte, two months after seizing document labs in Forest City and Gastonia that had been churning out fake driver’s licenses for six states, Social Security cards, resident alien cards and birth certificates.
When authorities seized the lab in Forest City, Inspector J.T. Ratliff of the Division of Motor Vehicles saw something that scared him.
“We found evidence where he appeared to be tampering with military IDs, experimenting with making them,” Ratliff said.
Demand among illegal immigrants is helping drive the growth of the fraudulent ID business, state officials said. Those undocumented residents need identification to transact business and to drive. All six of the suspects in the Charlotte, Forest City and Gastonia labs were either illegal immigrants or were suspected to be.
“It’s not just [underage kids] getting a driver’s license to be able to beat the guy at the door to get into the club. It’s getting to be a much more serious problem for everybody,” said DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson. “If you look at what businesses accept, your North Carolina driver’s license is your ticket. It gets you on an airplane. It cashes your checks. It gets you other identification.”
No terrorism suspect so far has used fake identification, but the opportunity is obvious, said Del Richburg, the Charlotte-based assistant special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for North Carolina.
“It is vulnerability,” Richburg said. “If they’re readily available, they’re readily available to anybody.”
Law enforcement is gaining a couple more weapons in this battle.
The DMV in September finished shifting its operations so that all driver’s licenses are issued from the agency’s central office in Raleigh. Applicants still go to field offices and turn in their paperwork and proof of identification, but they only get a temporary license. The agency takes an additional 15 to 20 days to run the applicant’s information through federal databases, to verify that the applicant is the person who walked in the door and that the address given actually exists. Then DMV mails out the license.
Those steps have cut down tremendously on attempts to get a fraudulent license at DMV field offices, Robertson said.
Unfortunately, it has also driven more business to the document labs.
The march of technology helps the law abiding and criminals alike.
When Ratliff and other officers arrested Jose Jeremias Marquez at his apartment in Charlotte last week, they didn’t find a bank of blinking lights and plasma screens. The technology inside looked much like a standard home computer, Ratliff said. A bogus identification shop needs a high quality laser printer, the right card stock and a bit of know-how, and soon it’s mimicking special inks and shiny holograms that probably will fool a check casher.
The Internet offers a variety of forums for ID forgers who share tricks to duplicating cards and the latest security mechanisms.
“The fraudulent side is always trying to keep up with the security features,” said Richburg, of ICE. “They adapt, as do all criminal enterprises.”
Some peddlers of phony IDs don’t have to hide from law enforcement, because they are based outside the country. The Web site http://www.newidcards.com, which has a United Kingdom telephone number, also offers live operators who take questions in an Internet chat room.
When The News & Observer asked whether the company was concerned that its products were designed to help people break the law, the operator left the chat room.
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