Law enforcement officials, who say identity theft has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, are claiming a victory in the fight against Internet sites that offer false identification. A sting operation has resulted in indictments against two website operators and half a dozen customers.
Investigators say the sale of false identification on the Internet is lucrative. During the 18 months that the website operators were under investigation, they did one million dollars in business selling fake driver licenses. Such licenses are widely accepted in the United States to establish identity and conduct financial transactions. Increasingly the fakes are used in financial fraud.
While investigating the web sites, the law enforcement officials decided to set up their own site to learn about potential customers.
Chris Johnson is assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, who says the law enforcement site, called fakeidworld.com, offered a full range of false identification.
"Fake credit cards, fake passports, fake college grades, just to see who out their in the Internet community was interested in trying to re-do their life," he said.
Over the 18-month period 41,000 people visited the site and 430 tried to make purchases.
"Needless to say, none of them were fulfilled, but it gave us a pretty good indication of the demand for false identification that is available on the Internet," Mr. Johnson said.
Six of the applicants were charged with fraud-related crimes. One was a convicted child molester who was seeking a new identity. Several others had prior criminal convictions.
The prosecutor says up to 80 percent of the applicants were teenagers below the legal drinking age who wanted identification showing that they were old enough to get into bars. But he says some of the others were intent on committing crimes. Requests came in from nearly 40 countries, from Argentina to Yugoslavia.
Mr. Johnson says investigators found no evidence that any applicant had links to terrorist organizations, but he won't rule out that possibility.
"If one looks at some of the terrorist acts that have occurred within the past several years, you'll see that a substantial link between false identification and terrorism,." he said.
He notes that the man caught at the U.S.-Canadian border with explosives in his car in December, 1999, used false identification to enter the United States in a failed plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport. He adds that those responsible for the bombing the U.S. warship Cole in the port of Aden also traveled with false identity papers.
Prosecution of those who sell false identification is difficult, says investigator Lance Mueller. He works in the District Attorney's office in Riverside, California, and helped identify the two operators of the web sites that sparked this investigation.
"It just so happened in this case that our suspects were located in Riverside, but it's a global market," he said. "So even though you have these web sites that are based in other countries, it becomes very difficult to regulate those. What we did in this case was set up a fake one to make the public aware that if they're going to do this [buy false identification], be aware that they may not be buying a fake ID."
The investigator says some of those who tried to buy false papers on the undercover website instead bought a ticket to jail. The rest will lose their $50 application fee.