By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 5/12/2005 12:15:38 PM ET 2005-05-12T16:15:38

Tuesday’s success story about government agents seizing counterfeit badges has turned into Wednesday’s nightmare. An unknown number of those badges are now in the hands of criminals, according to federal officials.

Earlier this week agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security seized more than 1,300 “high-quality counterfeit” badges.  The phony badges copied those of 35 different federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, according to a statement ICE released Wednesday. 

Among the fakes nabbed by ICE are those resembling badges of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the New York Police Department and even the Federal Air Marshal Service, the agency assigned to protect commercial air travel.

And that’s the good news.

The bad news:  “This seizure has serious Homeland Security and public safety implications, given that these counterfeit badges may have been intended for use by criminals and others with no legal authority to carry law enforcement badges,” ICE said in a statement. 

And ICE has no idea how many of those fake badges may already be in the hands of criminals.  “We’re examining that closely,” said Manny Van Pelt, an ICE spokesman.  “It is obviously a serious security issue.”

ICE is asking the public to be on the alert and to report anyone “displaying, using or distributing” phony badges.  But such warnings beg the question:  how does one know when a badge or credential is bogus?

“Typically, you won’t see both [badge and printed credential] together” if the person is using a fake badge, Van Pelt, said, noting that an impostor will likely be using either the credentials or the badge.  And the badge number should match that printed on the credential, he said.

In the post-9/11 era, concerns about the use of counterfeit badges, uniforms and credentials have taken on a new urgency.  There is even a well-worn urban myth about the security risk posed by the theft of thousands of UPS driver uniforms.

And just last month New York City hospitals were warned by the Department of Homeland Security to be on the lookout for people posing as inspectors.

“These said individuals were attempting to gain public health service information from hospital personnel, and behaved in a manner inconsistent with legitimate inspection professionals,” the DHS bulletin said.

For the general public it is nearly impossible to tell a fake badge or credential from the real thing.  To make matters worse, many federal agents are still carrying what are technically obsolete credentials.  This is owing to the fact that so many of these federal law enforcement agencies merged into new entities when the Department of Homeland Security was created on March 1, 2003.

Indeed, even ICE’s own agents—most of which come from the old Customs and INS branches--haven’t received their new credentials, Van Pelt acknowledged.  “We’re literally going to turn a corner on this thing shortly,” Van Pelt said, indicating that the new credentials should be issued soon.

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