SALT LAKE CITY — It's usually hard to surprise law enforcement officers. But even they are astounded at how widespread and sophisticated "document mills," which produce false identification mostly for illegal immigrants, have become in Utah.
Virtually in any city of size in Utah, you can obtain a fake Social Security card, a driver's license and a permanent resident alien card in a day — and often a Mexican voter registration card that helps with border crossings — with quality so good it can fool almost anyone, said Ken Wallentine, chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General's Office.
He is a leader of the Statewide Enforcement of Crimes by Undocumented Residents (SECURE) task force that the Legislature created last year to target serious crimes committed by illegal immigrants. He says once it started pursuing criminal illegal aliens, the task force soon discovered how widespread document mills are.
"The FBI had done a couple of those cases in the past few years," he said. "But we've done a couple dozen cases in just the past year."
And he says it is a gateway crime to everything from drug running to human trafficking, child pornography and illegal weapons sales. "You see many of the same people involved in drug trafficking as you do in fraudulent document trafficking," Wallentine said.
While many people think false documents are just bought by migrant workers, Wallentine said they often go to dangerous criminals — including, for example, one man who his task force found had used five aliases with documentation after once being deported following a murder conviction.
"If you look at guys committing serious crimes in the community, they — just like you and me — they have to go to the bank, they need to cash checks, they must show ID to police at traffic stops, they've got to rent apartments to live in. Identity theft and fraudulent documents facilitate these people to be here to commit violent crimes," Wallentine said.
He and Kirk Torgensen, a deputy attorney general who helps lead the task force, say law enforcement and the public may have not realized until now how widespread document mills are for several reasons.
First, they said the document mills tend to be run by immigrants for immigrants. "They wouldn't do business with someone who looks like me," Wallentine said, because he does not look Latino, Iraqi or Eastern European — which are groups catered to by some of the document mills found.
"It's real easy (to find) if you are in the right circle and know the right people," but it is not something that people outside of immigrant communities would easily find or notice. The task force finally found how widespread it is by using informants and undercover work.
Another reason document mills flew under the radar is that the identity theft they commit often affects the very young, and they may not notice problems for years or decades. For example, document mills generate Social Security numbers randomly that are often in numerical ranges now being given to infants or that will be given to future infants.
"So fraudulent use of a Social Security number owned by a 2-year-old may not be discovered until he is a 21-year-old and applies for a car loan, and finds a number of judgments against that number that affects his credit rating," Wallentine said.
Torgensen said work and seizures by his task force led to sending thousands of letters in the past year to parents of young children warning that their Social Security numbers likely have been compromised, and warned that they should watch the child's credit rating and take steps to solve any problems.
Torgensen said many document mills they identified seemed, at first, to operate without much concern that police might target them, including working out of storefronts or even having some deals and deliveries conducted in Hispanic grocery stores.
He said the task force found most documents were being sold for $125 to $150 each, or for $300 for a set of a Social Security card, immigration green card and driver's license.
That can generate a lot of money, Wallentine said. "We sat at a certain location one afternoon. We watched one runner do 14 different orders. … That's a couple thousand bucks from one runner on one corner one day. It's pretty good money," he said.
People running the document mills can be dangerous and unsavory. SECURE's annual report said it found a case of human trafficking, or slavery, where some workers at a document mill were not allowed out of the house and forced to help with illegal enterprises.
"They were folks who had a debt to pay off for being transported to the United States," Wallentine said. "I think they clearly would have suffered some consequences if they tried to leave and not pay the debt."
He adds that the task force has found that operators of document mills often are in position to pressure former customers into helping with illegal activities, or they could expose their illegal status. "There's a whole culture of predators in the immigrant communities," he said.
Wallentine added that it doesn't take much money to start a document mill. He said all that is needed is a $500 computer, a $200 printer and a $150 laminator. "Some who aren't the brightest of people still do amazing work with that," Torgensen said.
Wallentine said the state has even found some businesses that offer to provide for a price the computer programming and other materials needed to start a document mill — sort of like a franchising opportunity.
With all that, Torgensen said the strike force has conducted 165 investigations in its first year — and half of them involved document mills and identity theft.