Federal authorities said Wednesday that they have indicted 50 people, including two living in Hartford, in another attempt to shut down the booming black market for fraudulent Puerto Rican identity documents.
The target of the new indictment, by a grand jury in San Juan, is a wide-ranging conspiracy based in Caguas that obtained thousands of identity documents issued to real people in Puerto Rico and sold them through a network of agents in 16 U.S. states, mostly to undocumented Latin American immigrants.
The illegal immigrants and other customers were able to use the documents to create identities that appeared valid on the mainland. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said Wednesday that authorities were trying to track down the illegal identities in all affected states.
Just months ago, U.S. Postal authorities prosecuted another Puerto Rican identity case in Hartford. Two men, including a letter carrier, were accused of working for thieves who stole Social Security numbers in Puerto Rico and used the information to file fraudulent federal income tax returns and collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in phony refunds.
An FBI investigation on the island three years ago revealed that yet another group of thieves stole birth certificates and Social Security numbers issued to 10,000 or more school children, again for sale to illegal immigrants on the mainland.
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.
The thefts also caused the island to tighten rules concerning the storage of identity documents. In the cases of children, schools no longer require parents to provide them with original birth certificates for storage at central locations on school property.
Although Puerto Rico is a territory, not a state, people born there are U.S. citizens and move freely between the island and the mainland. Stolen documents, particularly those not reported stolen, are worth thousands of dollars to Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants desperate to establish identities in the U.S.
The indictment made public Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice describes a sophisticated network capable of filling individualized orders for identities, mostly from illegal immigrants but sometimes from criminals trying to escape their records. The network could deliver identities that fit a buyer's age and gender, according to the indictment and federal officials familiar with the investigation.
Thirteen people based in the Savorana area of the mountain town of Caguas obtained mostly stolen birth certificates and Social Security numbers. In a conference call with reporters, Breuer would not say where the materials came from or how they were obtained.
Agents of the network in states from Nebraska to Connecticut took orders from customers and acted as intermediaries between the customers and the network in Caguas.
A man and a woman from Hartford are accused in the indictment of acting as agents for the network. The man is identified in court papers as Armando Beltre Figuereo, an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic who used the name Wilson DeLeon Francis. The real name of the woman is not listed in the indictment, but she is described as calling herself Maria Cotto and Maria Cotto Diaz.
Federal prosecutors and the woman's lawyer declined to discuss her case or disclose her real name.
Beltre is accused of obtaining phony identification for himself and at least one other person. The woman using the name Cotto is accused of wiring money and arranging to take a shipment of stolen documents.
The indictment said that agents of the network such as Beltre and Cotto provided a range of services. If a customer had an urgent need for a new identity, the agents could arrange for the network in Puerto Rico to expedite an order and ship the papers by Express Mail. They also helped customers obtain driver's licenses and U.S. passports, and register automobiles.
The most highly valued documents -- matching sets of birth certificates and Social Security numbers -- cost from $700 to $2,500, according to the indictment. Customers paid a portion up front and the remainder on delivery. Breuer would say only that the network sold "hundreds and hundreds" of sets of documents.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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