Social Security cards run about $20, green cards about $70 and a California driver’s license between $60 and $250.
The price jumps up for higher-quality documents, such as IDs with magnetic strips containing real information -- often from victims of identity theft.
As the demand for counterfeit IDs skyrockets, the criminal organizations that produce them are increasingly relying on sophisticated technology to expand their operations and thwart authorities.
“You name it, they can make it,” said Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Arturo Martinez, who specializes in fraudulent document cases.
Even though Los Angeles is considered the epicenter of the fake ID trade, for years the problem didn’t register as a high priority for an already burdened police force. The lack of consistent enforcement allowed the underground industry to build up until it was “out of control,” said LAPD Officer Fernando Flores.
That changed in 2003, when the Los Angeles Police Department assigned two Rampart Division officers to crack down on counterfeiters. Both the city attorney and the L.A. County district attorney said they had focused more resources in the last two years on the phony ID industry. And now, equipped with a new law that will make it a crime to possess equipment used to create fake IDs, prosecutors hope to put even more counterfeiters behind bars.
But law enforcement officials acknowledge that making a dent in the thriving and highly profitable trade of fake identification documents won’t be easy, primarily because the problem is so widespread.
On a typical weekday near MacArthur Park, west of downtown Los Angeles, dozens of vendors peddle IDs and guide customers into photo shops. “Mica! Mica!” they say -- using the Spanish slang for laminated ID cards -- as they hold their hands up in the shape of a card.
When Jorge Flores crossed the border illegally from Mexico three years ago, he applied for a job as a cook. The employer asked him for his papers. Other immigrants directed Flores to Alvarado Street, where he bought fake Social Security and green cards.
“When you first get here, you don’t know where to go,” said Flores, 25, who lives in Huntington Park. “The people who have been here a long time tell you. Everybody knows you can buy papers in MacArthur Park.”
Mica mills first appeared in Los Angeles decades ago to serve a ballooning population of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But these days, gang members and parolees eager to conceal their identities are also keeping counterfeiters busy, officers said.
In fact, authorities say the rise in identity theft is increasing demand for fraudulent documents. The LAPD’s Flores estimated that 95% of the fake cards they recover can be traced to theft victims.
“Twenty years ago, it was students looking to go into bars and immigrants looking to work,” said LAPD Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, who supervises investigations into fraudulent documents. “The focus has changed.... We are seeing a lot more criminals.”
LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck said the main reason the department didn’t previously pursue the fake ID trade was because Rampart officers were focused on reducing violent crime in MacArthur Park, leaving few resources to go after mica mills. St. Pierre said officers were also limited by an LAPD policy preventing officers from enforcing immigration laws.
In 2002, Rampart officers didn’t arrest a single counterfeiter. By contrast, they apprehended 73 people in 2003 and 84 in 2004. Through Nov. 15 of this year, officers made 124 arrests.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also working to break up counterfeiting mills. The agency cited 30 arrests, 16 indictments and 14 convictions in the Los Angeles area in fiscal 2005. Although most of the investigations focus on MacArthur Park, agents have also shut down operations in Huntington Park, Canoga Park and Whittier.
Two of the most recent busts occurred in Orange County. After a series of undercover buys this fall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents traced the purchased ID cards to five mills -- four in Santa Ana and one in Anaheim. They arrested 15 Mexican and Salvadoran men, many with prior convictions for similar crimes.
In addition to old-fashioned printing presses, laminators and typewriters, the agents found computers, laser printers, scanners and software. They also discovered various IDs, including three versions of green cards, matricula consular cards (an ID issued by the Mexican consulate to undocumented immigrants in the United States), Mexican driver’s licenses and Los Angeles County birth certificates.
“It was a one-stop shop for anyone who needs a new identity,” said Dwayne Angebrandt, a supervisory special agent who oversaw the Orange County investigations.
Counterfeiters can be prosecuted in federal or state court, and can face a maximum of three years in state prison for possessing fake IDs and a minimum of five years for manufacturing them, Flores said. Until recently, however, prosecutors could not charge counterfeiters for possession of document-making equipment. A state bill, which takes effect in January, closes that loophole by making it a crime to possess scanners, computers and printers with the intent to make fake IDs.
Despite possible lengthy sentences, counterfeiters usually serve just a few years behind bars if found guilty, authorities said. Many are convicted only of misdemeanors, resulting in short stays in county jail.
“They are not getting the time that they should,” LAPD Officer Henry Covarrubias said. “They are getting a slap on the hand.”
Even with enhanced powers, law enforcement agencies face obstacles in combating the phony ID trade.
The counterfeiters conduct counter-surveillance, learning what cars investigators drive and using cellphones to quickly spread the word. To trip up authorities, they often use two or three middlemen to place and deliver orders. And they pay gangs for permission to stand on street corners in exchange for protection.
But the computerization of the industry has been the biggest challenge for law enforcement, making it easier for people to make fake IDs -- and harder for police to catch them. Martinez, the deputy city attorney, said the technology has created a “boom” in the business.
“These people are computer savvy,” said Kevin Jeffery, a deputy special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations in Los Angeles. “It’s not like it was in the good old days.... The crooks are keeping up with the times as well as law enforcement.”
In the past, counterfeiters needed to know how to operate a printing press. Now, all they need to know is how to click and print. The software can be easily copied, Jeffery said, and the new technology makes it easier to produce a wider selection of documents, including student ID cards, proof of auto insurance, vehicle pink slips and Mexican birth certificates.
In addition, the smaller equipment makes it easier for counterfeiters to hide mills. “How long does it take to unplug a computer and printer and move from location A to location B?” Jeffery said. “A matter of minutes.”
Authorities believe most of the document labs throughout the country trace to two criminal organizations. Earlier this year, federal grand juries in Denver indicted leaders of both groups, and investigators discovered 20 mills and tens of thousands of blank phony documents. One of the rings had franchises around the country, including in Los Angeles, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Several Los Angeles mills also serve customers throughout the country, investigators said. They have found order forms or ID cards from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.
Often, the counterfeiters are deported, but then they sneak back across the border to resume working in the industry. One man was convicted in Los Angeles five years ago for making and distributing fake ID documents, deported to Mexico and then rearrested in the Denver case this year.
Many of the area’s counterfeiters are illegal immigrants, recruited from Mexico or Central America or handpicked when they arrive to work in the industry.
“For every one runner we take off the streets,” said Jerry Baik, an assistant supervising city attorney in Los Angeles, “there are probably lines of them waiting to take their place.”