Identity Theft Linked to Illegal Immigration

Arizona Republic (Phoenix), April 23, 2008

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Though illegal immigrants aren’t the only ones stealing identities, cases like Bien’s illustrate the inability of disparate government agencies to tackle the problem.

While lawmakers in Washington debate ways to crack down on illegal immigration, the market for false documents and stolen Social Security numbers is booming.

Particularly vulnerable, authorities say, are legal residents with Hispanic last names. Or, as in Bien’s case, names that could sound Hispanic.

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The IRS may suspect that multiple people are using the same Social Security number, but the agency doesn’t investigate ID theft. Local police and prosecutors cannot deport illegal immigrants they arrest.

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Federal estimates indicate that nearly 10 million Americans become victims of identity theft each year. Officials can’t say how many of those identities are being used by illegal workers, but prosecutors in Kansas say they see more cases of illegal immigrants using fake credentials every year.

It mirrors an increase in overall cases related to illegal immigration. The Kansas U.S. attorney’s office received 18 such cases in 1997; in 2007, the number was 106.

Experts expect the trend to continue, and they’re finding ID theft in surprising places. Last fall, U.S. prosecutors in Missouri charged five noncitizens with ID theft after they were found working in the Kansas City Federal Building’s cafeteria.

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Hackers steal databases. Workers with access to records sell them illegally. Sometimes, it’s as simple as someone rifling through your mail or garbage for sensitive documents.

And illegal immigrants are hardly the only perpetrators. Americans avoiding warrants or child support payments steal identities, too. Scam artists use the information to drain bank accounts or get credit cards.

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Judy Ancel, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Labor Studies, said it’s wrong to compare immigrant workers to criminals who take out fraudulent credit cards.

“Identity theft is when you steal someone’s identity in order to profit from them,” she said. “The crime they (illegal immigrants with fake identities) have committed is working under somebody else’s Social Security number. The attempt to criminalize immigration is the wrong path. . . . It’s just going to make a bunch of families suffer.”

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Prosecutors say the decision to file charges and deport comes down to manpower, resources and evidence. When local police make an arrest, the case often falls to the county prosecutor. Federal authorities say they must focus on the most serious crimes.

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Deportation, too, is a federal matter. And ID thieves prosecuted locally are likely to get probation if they have no prior record.

“You can have an illegal (immigrant) commit a felony with presumptive probation and they’ll be right back on the street and not deported,” Kline said. “We’re left with no options.”

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