SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Fifty people have been accused of conspiring to sell the identities of hundreds of Puerto Ricans to illegal immigrants on the U.S. mainland in the largest single fraud case ever for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, authorities said Wednesday.
Hundreds of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and driver's licenses were sold for up to $2,500 a set as part of a black market ring based in Puerto Rico that operated from since at least April 2009, according to ICE Director John Morton.
"The vast majority were legitimate documents obtained by fraudulent or false means," he said.
The alleged ring consisted of suppliers, runners and brokers, who made coded phone calls asking for "skirts" for female customers and "pants" for male customers in specific "sizes", which referred to ages and identities sought, according to ICE.
The documents would be sent through priority or express mail from Puerto Rico to brokers that operated in at least 15 states including Ohio, Texas, Florida and North Carolina, officials said.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said suppliers even allegedly offered to exchange documents if customers were not satisfied, adding that he did not know how much money was made overall.
He said the investigation is still ongoing.
About 80 percent of the documents involved were sold by Puerto Ricans whose names were on them, officials said. Those documents often were then used to apply for a driver's license or a U.S. passport or to commit financial fraud.
Puerto Ricans are often an attractive target because they are U.S. citizens with Hispanic surnames.
Morton said another 20 arrest warrants were issued on Wednesday in separate but similar cases, with 61 of 70 suspects either arrested or whose surrender was arranged.
The investigation began with a tip from police in Illinois, which led to a nearly two-year undercover operation called "Island Express."
"We have gone after everyone involved in the chain: the leaders, the suppliers, the brokers, the runners," Morton said.
In 2010, The Associated Press reported that thousands of Puerto Ricans had become victims of identity fraud in part because the government, schools and other institutions did not secure copies of their birth certificates, which are routinely requested by sports leagues, churches and other groups.
In July 2010, Puerto Rico began annulling all old birth certificates and began issuing new ones with security features to cut down on theft and fraud cases. Morton and Breuer declined to comment on whether the measure has worked.
It is unclear how many new birth certificates have been issued. State Secretary Kenneth McClintock did not respond to requests for comment.
The 50 suspects were indicted by a federal grand jury on Dec. 29 on one charge each of conspiracy to commit identification fraud. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.
Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.