12 January 2012

Fifty held over US immigration fraud case

In one of the largest fraud cases ever investigated by US immigration officials, 50 people have been detained in connection with identity theft and the sale of identity documents.

American visa

Thousands of Puerto Ricans have been targeted by identity thieves.

US immigration officials say that the accused stole the identities of thousands of Puerto Rican citizens to sell to illegal immigrants for as much as $2,500 (£1,631) each.

An almost two-year-long investigation, codenamed 'Island Express' was brought to a head after a tip off from police in the state of Illinois prompted the arrests of 50 people suspected of trafficking hundreds of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and driver's licences since 2009.

The suspects have each been charged with conspiracy to commit identification fraud; a charge which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

The network, which spanned several US states, is alleged to have targeted documents which had originated in the American territory of Puerto Rico, as Puerto Ricans possess valid US documents with Hispanic names.

"The vast majority were legitimate documents obtained by fraudulent or false means" said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton.

The documents were then sold on to illegal immigrants, mainly those in Latin America who could not obtain a US visa by legitimate means.

The system took almost two years to break due to a complex conspiracy which kept the illicit activities hidden from the eyes of the law. Coded phone calls requesting certain items of clothing, such as skirts and pants, in specific size relating to the size, age and type of the identity requested.

The system is alleged to have been so elaborate that the suppliers even offered to replace documents if a customer was not satisfied.

Although the sums of money involved in the system are as of yet unknown, ICE pledged that they had done everything they could to shut down the system.

"We have gone after everyone involved in the chain: the leaders, the suppliers, the brokers, the runners".

Puerto Ricans have been disproportionately targeted by identity thieves with thousands of Puerto Ricans reported to have become victims of identity theft in 2010 alone. The threat has led the US government to begin reissuing birth certificates with new, advanced security features and annulling Puerto Ricans' original certificates.

The American Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries make their ESTA application.

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