Fourteen Indicted in Identity Theft Crackdown in Puerto Rico

The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday they charged 14 people in three separate indictments over identity fraud, theft and money laundering for their role in trafficking the identities and documents of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens.

So far five have been arrested in Puerto Rico and Florida and will be arraigned in federal court this week; arrest warrants have been issued for the remaining defendants.

The Justice Department claims that between 2008 and 2014, defendants in the U.S. and Puerto Rico sold the identities and social security cards, Puerto Rico birth certificates and other identification documents of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens to undocumented immigrants and others residing in mainland United States. 

The indictment alleges defendants obtained Puerto Rican identities and identity documents, and conspirators in places in the U.S. sold customers those identities and documents — $700 for a social security card and $2,500 for a Puerto Rico birth certificate.

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Investigators found that defendants made coded telephone calls using monikers like “shirts”, “uniforms” or “clothes” to refer to identification documents, pay was by money transfer, and text messages confirmed orders. The U.S. Mail was used to send identity documents to brokers who then sold the documents to customers. Customers used the documents to obtain driver’s licenses, and some used them to commit financial fraud or obtain U.S. passports.

Brokers operated in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas according to the Justice Department.

The extent of the identity theft problem in Puerto Rico and its national security implications moved the government of the U.S. territory in 2010 to require that everyone born on the island obtain new birth certificates with enhanced security features.

Puerto Ricans on average get about 20 copies of their birth certificates over their lifetimes because they are regularly asked to produce them for enrolling children in school or joining sports leagues.

In an interview in 2010, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state told NBC, “As much as 40 percent of the identity fraud in the U.S. involves birth certificates from Puerto Rico. It’s a problem that’s been growing and as the need in the black market for birth certificates with Hispanic-sounding names grew, the black market value of Puerto Rican birth certificates has gone into the $5,000 to $10,000 range,” said Kenneth McClintock Hernandez .

The latest indictments are part of a national enforcement crackdown, Operation Island Express II, instigated by the International Revenue Service against fraud and identify theft resulting in sweeps in 32 states and Puerto Rico involving 215 cities. The campaign has resulted in hundreds of arrests.

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