May 27, 2008 at 9:00 AM ET
Like arriving home to see a broken window, Holli knew something was wrong when she pulled up the statement from her new 401(k) account and saw a stranger's name there. Under her name and account information, she found a second name: Paulino Rodriguez. But was it an accident, random vandalism or a serious crime? She opened the virtual door to her account and sorted through the broken glass. Her worst fears would soon be confirmed.
After some frantic research, Holli pieced together part of the story. Rodriguez, the 401(k) Web site revealed, lived in Escondido, Calif., about 90 minutes south of Holli’s home in Fountain Valley. He was a restaurant worker in an Escondido Burger King. This was no prank -- though Holli would soon feel like several government agencies, corporations and a criminal were having fun at her expense. She was a victim of something experts call Social Security number-only identity theft, generally committed by immigrants who don’t have the necessary credentials to work legally in the U.S.
Holli wondered what else the imposter had done to her credit and her good name. (Msnbc.com has agreed to conceal Holli’s identity in this story.)
Escondido is Ground Zero of the immigration debate. Just a few minutes north of the Mexican border, near San Diego, Escondido is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants who battle their way every day into the country and into gainful employment. Mexicans have been fighting in Escondido for a long time. Not far away, in 1846, U.S. forces were routed in the Battle of San Pasqual during the Mexican-American war, the worst American defeat of the conflict. Today, some say, Mexicans are again overwhelming American forces in a different kind of battle.
For the past three years, Paulino Rodriguez used Holli's Social Security number for the right to work at the Escondido Burger King. Recently, with his wife and four children, he took up residence in a middle-class subdivision on Espanas Glen Street in Escondido, a short block near Interstate 15.
Rodriguez, according U.S. immigration officials, is a Mexican national with no right to work in the United States. But thanks in part to Holli’s Social Security number, he had found a decent life for his family in Escondido, which means "hidden" in Spanish. But that that life was safe only if no one found out he was sharing Holli's identity.
Across America, perhaps millions of U.S. citizens are sharing their identities with undocumented workers who are virtually hiding behind Social Security numbers like Rodriguez. The data on the subject are incomplete, but each year nearly 10 million workers pay their taxes using the wrong Social Security number. While this can happen for a variety of reasons, most often it involves restaurant and farm workers, suggesting many of those 10 million workers are employees who are using someone else's SSN to satisfy federal employment requirements.
Information at her fingertips
Holli, a woman in her 50s, panicked one month ago when she saw Rodriguez’s name on her 401(k) account, then she started putting the pieces together. It wasn't hard -- she had all of Rodriguez's personal information right there on her screen, including his age: 38. She called his employer, Reddy Restaurants Inc., which supplies workers to Burger King. Holli says she was told that nothing could be done because Rodriguez fulfilled the requirements for employment when he started work -- namely, he supplied what appeared to be a valid Social Security card.
Mike Holly, owner of Reddy, confirmed that Rodriguez was an employee but refused to otherwise discuss the situation.
Holli then called the local police, who took a report but said nothing could be done. She contacted the Social Security Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, even her 401(k) administrator. The message she heard from each was the same: We can’t help you. She even went to an attorney, who delivered bad news.
"(He) said since my credit hadn't been affected, they couldn't do anything for me," Holli recalled.
But Holli was persistent. She eventually convinced her local police department to take a report, and to forward it to Escondido police. Then, she pestered the dispatcher in Escondido enough that the file was passed on to the investigations department. Detective Damon Vander Vorst took an interest in the case.
Rodriguez entered the country nearly 20 years ago, public records suggest. It's unclear where in Mexico he grew up, or how he crossed the border. At about the same time, Holli was just starting her career.
Precisely when their lives were blended isn't clear. But about three years ago, Holli remembers getting a funny look from a clerk while she was filling out insurance paperwork at an optometrist’s office. "There's someone else's using that (SSN) number," she remembers being told. Then, "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but the name Paulino Rodriguez."
Holli assumed it was an error. But around that same time, Rodriguez signed up with Reddy Restaurants and began working -- using her SSN -- at Burger King.
Holli has no solid information on how her number was stolen, but she has one guess: About five years ago she was laid off from her job and went back to school to finish her college degree in finance. Her school, Long Beach State, used her SSN as her ID number during that time. Her first brush with Rodriguez happened within a few months of her graduation.
Three years passed without incident. Then in April, she opened up the Web site for a new company benefit – a 401(k) plan – and saw the name Paulino Rodriguez again. Holli’s heart sank and her quest began. It ended a month later when she talked to Vander Vorst. On May 13, Vander Vorst staked out a home in a gated subdivision named Villas Espanas, waiting for his suspect.
While there is an obvious Latino majority, the neighborhood looks just like any other middle-class San Diego suburb, full of neat white stucco townhomes with red-tile roofs. Most store signs are in English only. A dry cleaner, grocery store, and school are just a few blocks away. During a recent visit by an msnbc.com reporter at midday, the neighborhood was quiet. The subdivision has a large pool; hanging in Rodriguez’s front window, three pairs of child-sized goggles were visible from the sidewalk.
Just outside the home, Vander Vorst arrested Rodriguez. Police allege he had falsified Social Security card and work visa.
Getting such documents is hardly an obstacle for illegal immigrants seeking work. Fake Social Security cards and work visas can be purchased in Los Angeles for around $200, law enforcement officials say -- a small investment for the opportunity to work in the United States.
Rodriguez was charged with identity theft and with falsifying government documents, according to Escondido police spokesman Lt. Craig Carter. He was shipped to nearby Vista Detention Facility, where he awaits his fate on the criminal charges. meanwhile, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency has placed a "hold" on him. That means he is "subject to deportation," according to Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE.
Rodriguez refused an interview request by an MSNBC.com free-lance reporter who visited the jail.
Holli had mixed feelings when she began her quest to track down her imposter.
"When all this began a month and a half ago, I was worried I might be ruining his life when all he wanted to do was work," she said. But the bureaucratic tangle had changed her. "Now after spending numerous hours of my time trying to find out what is going on as well as worrying, losing sleep and using my work vacation time, I no longer feel bad for Paulino. He made the choice to steal my number. And the fact that privacy laws keep me from being able to see what he is doing with my number infuriates me."
She also fears possible retribution for her actions; that’s why she insisted that msnbc.com preserve her anonymity. She also wants to prevent Rodriguez from finding out who she is. Generally, SSN imposters don't commit full-blown identity theft, and don't know who their victims are – Rodriguez likely never even knew Holli’s name.
Immigrant imposters usually just provide a Social Security card to their employer on their first day of work to fulfill what's known as the “I-9” requirement. Since new employment rules took effect in 1983, U.S. workers must supply documentation to prove they are eligible to work; nearly always, a Social Security number is used. While employers can call the Social Security Administration to perform limited verification of the information, that's seldom done. So it's possible -- in fact common -- that employees’ names and numbers don't match. When that happens, no one gets credit for the taxes paid by the worker. The money simply ends up in the U.S. Treasury. Since 1983, more than $500 billion in uncredited Social Security wages have been earned by so-called "no match" employees like Rodriguez. That hidden financial benefit for the government is one reason, Holli suspects, that agencies don't act more quickly on reports of SSN-only identity theft.
San Diego-based immigration rights advocate Lilia Velasquez sees similar cases in her practice all the time. Imposters run the spectrum from hardened criminals who ultimately take out loans in the victim's name to well-intentioned Mexicans who are simply doing what they need to do to get a job and feed their families.
"It's not that these people intentionally and maliciously stole someone's name and identity. ... They may feel that they are using the number out of sheer need," she said.
But victims like Holli should do what they need to do to protect their identities, Velasquez said. "That's a situation which needs to be investigated until the issue is resolved."
37 people shared one SSN
If not, what appears to be a simple bout of ID theft can spin out of control. Immigrant workers who successfully use someone else's identity can pass the information around. Three years ago, a Chicago-area victim named Linda Trevino discovered that her Social Security Number had been used by workers at 37 different companies.
When another person is using a consumers' Social Security Number for employment purposes only, there is almost no way to discover the identity theft. The misuse will not show up on a credit report; it won't be detected by credit monitoring. Because the wages earned are not credited to the victim, they won't show up on annual Social Security statements either. In fact, there is no way for anyone to inspect the history of their Social Security Number, or to find out where and when it's been used. Only an anomaly or coincidence – such as having an imposter show up on a 401(k) Web site -- betrays the theft.
That's why this is an important victory for Holli; she's among the first to find her SSN imposter and stop the ID theft. Of course, she has no way of knowing if her identity is now secure, because her number may have been used by other immigrants.
"The fact that I can check my credit but not my whole credit is absurd," she said. "In any case, this is my identifier that follows me around and I should be able to protect myself (and my identifier) by knowing what is attached to it." She plans on urging Congress to fix the problem. Meanwhile, she’s left with a sour taste in her mouth -- she acted in self-defense, but worries that some will see her as a villain who caused Rodriguez’s arrest. She’s angry at the criminal who stole her identity and at the system which put her in this compromising situation.
The future of Rodriguez and his family is unclear. If his children are U.S. citizens, law enforcement officials say, he may be allowed to remain in the U.S.. Otherwise, deportation is a likely outcome, but not right away. Before the immigration issue is settled, he will likely face state criminal ID theft charges in state court.
Jacqueline Dizdul reported from San Diego.