Six people, including a California DMV clerk in the El Monte office, are facing federal identity theft charges after prosecutors say they sold Puerto Rican birth certificates and matching Social Security numbers to people seeking new identities.
Members of the reported identity theft ring got the documents of Puerto Rico residents from an unknown source and sold them to people willing to pay up to $5,000 for new identities, the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement. Many of their customers were felons previously released from jail, prosecutors said.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of the headline of this post referred to the birth certificates being sold as "fake." The documents and Social Security numbers being sold are real but do not belong to the people buying them.
On Monday, Dept. of Motor Vehicles clerk Tracey Lynette Jones, 33, of Long Beach, surrendered to federal authorities and pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to various identity theft charges, according to the U.S. attorney's office. She was released on $25,000 bond and ordered to stand trial in November.
"This identity theft scheme was particularly insidious because it both victimized the individuals whose identities were stolen and required the active participation of a government official," U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. "The fact that a DMV official abused her position of authority in committing this crime is egregious since such conduct can undermine the public's confidence in a government institution entrusted with our personal information."
Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and DMV agents last month arrested Wilfredo Montero, 36, of Los Angeles; Adolfo Maria Cruz, 47, of Corona; Roberto Ruiz, 35, of Tustin; and Jose Cruz, 49, of Corona. Cruz remains in custody, and the others have been released on bond.
The sixth defendant named in the four-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury on Sept. 30 is Jose "Diablo" Perez, also known as Pedro Josue Figueroa-Marquez, 33, of Mexico. Authorities are still searching for him, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Prosecutors called Montero the leader of the conspiracy. In one July 2012 meeting with an undercover agent posing as a prospective customer, Montero led the agent to his garage, where he pulled out a Puerto Rican birth certificate and Social Security card hidden in a boxing glove, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
Once the customers had their identity documents, the defendants charged extra to help them use those documents to apply for California identity cards or drivers' licenses under the assumed identities, without passing required DMV tests, according to the nine-page indictment.
The group would charge customers between $600 and $1,000 in exchange for Jones' accessing and altering the person's records to falsely state that he or she had passed written and behind-the-wheel driver's license tests, the indictment states.
"DMV does not tolerate any type of illegal conduct among employees who tarnish the image of thousands of other DMV employees who work hard to ensure every applicant meets all licensing requirements," Jean Shiomoto, director of the California Dept. of Motor Vehicles, said in a statement.
The case is the result of a three-year undercover investigation, prosecutors said. If convicted, the six defendants face a statutory maximum of 15 years in federal prison.
Authorities said they still are trying to determine the source of the documents from Puerto Rico.