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Illegal immigrants turn to identity theft

When U.S. Air Force veteran Marcos Miranda had his identity stolen, he went from being a valued customer and employee to a government statistic.
Image: Marcos Miranda
U.S. Air Force veteran Marcos Miranda first learned that someone was using his identity when he was arrested on a warrant at the Mexican border. Victor Calzada / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

When U.S. Air Force veteran Marcos Miranda had his identity stolen, he went from being a valued customer and employee to a government statistic — one of thousands of identity theft victims caught up each year in the crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Identity theft has been a growing worry in the United States, but a rise in federal prosecutions of immigrants offers a new wrinkle on the problem. As better systems are developed for verifying employment, illegal immigrants are assuming the names and government-issued ID numbers of Americans like Miranda to thwart detection at workplaces, get driver's licenses and obtain credit.

Miranda first learned someone else was using his identity in 2000 when he was arrested on a warrant for unpaid traffic tickets at the border after a visit to relatives in Mexico. The 24-year-old Texas man was released after paying a $340 fine for violations he never incurred. Although his money was eventually returned, his nightmare was just beginning.

The most common start to identity theft is for the perpetrator get hold of someone's Social Security number, which is part of the system used to record people's earnings for federal retirement benefits. Once a person takes a job in the U.S., the first thing his employer will likely ask for is his or her Social Security number.

In Miranda's case, that's why he has gotten repeated letters from the federal tax officials demanding thousands of dollars in back taxes for wages paid to someone using his name and Social Security number to work at a pork slaughterhouse in Holton, Kansas. Miranda watched his once-high credit rating plummet as creditors reported unpaid bills incurred by others.

"Even though I am Hispanic, I am against illegal immigration," Miranda said. "Even though a lot of them come to work, there are always bad apples. (Identity theft) has really made my perspective ... negative about immigration."

A Mexican national accused of stealing Miranda's identity pleaded guilty last month to one count of using fraudulent documents in a plea deal with federal prosecutors. Joel Rojas-Morales, 27, will be sentenced in March.

"That way he knows crime doesn't pay in America. Maybe in Mexico it does. But here, it may take some time, but the long arm of the law catches up to you," Miranda said.

Chris Joseph, the defense attorney representing Rojas-Morales, is sympathetic to identity theft victims like Miranda.

"I have no reason to doubt that is absolutely true. There is no question he is a victim of identity theft," Joseph said. "The question is: who did the victimizing intentionally? Generally speaking, people who come into the United States don't go out and steal an identity. They generally purchase a set of identity documents for the purpose of being able to work."

Illegal immigrants who buy documents are often reassured by sellers that the identity they're getting belongs to someone who no longer works in this country, who sold his identity papers, who died or who never existed.

"The person naively purchases the papers believing they are not doing any harm," Joseph said.

Prosecutors said Rojas-Morales worked under a false identity at the Kansas pork slaughterhouse since 2004, allegedly using a fraudulent Colorado driver's license, a bogus Social Security card and other phony documents.

Based on Miranda's account of his identity theft problems, Joseph said, it's likely several people were using his identity. Joseph declined to talk specifically about his client's criminal case, or allow him to be interviewed.

The government has "no solid numbers" showing either an increase or decrease in immigration-related identity theft cases nationwide, said Betsy Broder, assistant director in the division of privacy and identity protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

But she said the agency has seen a rise in prosecutions of workers using other people's information to be employed, particularly for using fraudulent Social Security numbers.

By far the largest workplace enforcement to date was the December 2006 raid at six plants owned by the meatpacking firm Swift & Co. in which 1,282 illegal immigrants were arrested.

Statistics show the number of immigration-related criminal cases filed by U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren's office in Wichita more than tripled between fiscal years 2002 and 2006, peaking at 161 by 2006 in Kansas as the Department of Justice stepped up prosecutions for fraudulent documents and identity theft. By 2007, the number slipped to 100 in the state.

"Certainly there has been far more activity starting with action in the Swift packing plant and a number of actions brought by the Department of Homeland Security on these workplace issues," Broder said.

An Federal Trade Commission survey released last month showed identity theft for employment purposes comprised about 1 percent of identity theft cases nationwide, for an estimated 83,000 employment-related identity theft victims in 2005. People using a fraudulent identity to work often use it to also obtain utility services, government benefits, medical care and credit.

Credit card fraud is the most common form of identity theft.

Based on actual numbers of identity theft complaints reported to the trade commission in 2006, states bordering Mexico led the nation in identity theft victims per population. Arizona ranked first — followed by Nevada, California, Texas and Florida.

That data showed 246,035 identity theft victims nationwide who reported at least one type of identity theft to the FTC in 2006. Employment-related fraud comprised 14 percent of the complaints nationwide, and about 11 percent of those reported by Kansas victims.

Kansas ranked 29th in the nation with 1,626 identity theft victims who filed complaints in 2006, the trade commission data showed.

As Rojas-Morales sits in jail in Kansas, the real Marcos Miranda is slowly rebuilding his life in El Paso, Texas, where he works as a truck driver for Swift.

Miranda has gotten a new Social Security number and has signed up for a credit monitoring service.

"That way," he said, "I can get back on track and get my credit back and do what I have to do to keep my identity to myself."