FORT MYERS, Fla. Criminals are using a little piece of plastic to take identity theft to the next level, from draining bank accounts to opening credit lines and racking up arrests in other people’s names.
WINK News requested police reports for those arrested for possessing non-authorized state identification.
Since 2015, 100 arrests were made across Southwest Florida for fake ID’s. Some appeared to use their IDs to purchase alcohol and others for immigration or residency purposes.
But the majority appeared to fake ID’s for identity theft or other fraud-related crimes.
How they’re purchased
Carrie Kerskie, director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University, says it’s easier than ever for crooks to obtain counterfeit ID’s online.
“These really cater to the underage college student,” she explained. “They’re not 21 but they want to get an ID so they can go out to the bar with their friends. That’s the market they are catering to but unfortunately, anyone can buy one of these identities and they are being used to commit identity theft.”
Kerskie says she’s worried these “novelty ID” sites are making it easier for crooks to take the theft to the next level.
Thieves are also getting personal identifying information, including bank account information, names, social security numbers and driver’s license numbers, on the dark web, she said.
“With these websites, all you have to do is upload a photograph and they’ll even tell you how to take the photograph, and they will give you a driver’s license with someone’s information on it, you know driver’s license number, has the hologram, magnetic stripes everything,” she said. “Often they’ll even go undetected by law enforcement through the naked eye.”
One site advertised two fake ID’s of the user’s choice for $100 and offered to ship them within 30 days, Kerskie said.
How they’re used
“It’s on a massive scale with computers the way they are,” criminal defense attorney Joe Viacava said. “I mean it affects commerce, it affects banking it’s massive, it really it is.”
Viacava, while not discussing any particular case, said the issue is bigger than more people realize.
“We’re talking about a company or an enterprise that’s set up almost like a mafia or a cartel,” he said. “They’re involved with so many different you know, criminal acts that this is just a huge part of how they set up things and obviously it’s a problem. We’re talking about literally criminal enterprises that have now moved from gambling and prostitution and drugs to now this type of crime which then funds those types of crime. So you’re dealing on a level that is so much more sophisticated.”
Identities are being bundled and sold like mortgages, he said.
“What people don’t realize is that on big levels they’re buying thousands and thousands of different information,” he said. “It’s like how you sell a mortgage basically, like a block. So they’re selling 10,000 cards, 15,000 cards and within that are bunch that work, a bunch that don’t work, of all different values.”
How they’re caught
“Realistically, it’s the small percentage of criminals out there that we end up making contact with and end up holding them accountable,” said Sgt. Brian Sawyer with the Collier Sheriff’s Office’s Financial Bureau.
Most suspects are discovered at traffic stops.
Yunierlys Gonzalez was a passenger in a car on I-75 that was stopped for a tint violation. Lee County Sheriff’s Office detectives found multiple counterfeit credit cards and a counterfeit license inside the vehicle.
Randy Guerrero Sanchez was pulled over for a red light. A counterfeit license along with 30 fake credit cards were found inside Sanchez’s truck by Lee County deputies.
Both men were sentenced to probation.
When found, the fake ID’s tend to be sophisticated, Sawyer said.
“That’s one of the scary things,” he said. “We’ve seen them morph into very well produced ID’s and driver’s licenses. The information is accurate, the font, the holograms, they’re very good at what they’re able to produce and obtain.”
The realistic-looking ID’s are helping the criminals steal on a whole new level, Sawyer said.
“It can be used to get acceptance for a check, get acceptance for using a credit card or getting credit on scene from a business,” Sawyer continued. “In addition they take advantage of whatever your credit is. If you’re allocated $25,000 in bank credit, then these criminals are able to access that $25,000 the same you would be able to yourself by pretending to be you.”
How to protect yourself
There are ways people can protect themselves from identity theft, Sawyer said.
“You should do routine credit checks on yourself,” he said. “If you want to do a credit freeze, you can definitely do that, especially if you are not going to make a [large] purchase.”
Bank and credit card statements should be checked more than once a month to catch fraudulent charges sooner.
Businesses can also play a role by taking note of potential fake ID’s, Sawyer said.
“If something feels weird, remember that person is in your business,” he said. “So if you have surveillance images or if you are able to take a picture of them surreptitiously, however you can do it without putting yourself in danger then that’s going to memorialize who that person is.”
Any bit of information helps, Sawyer said.
“If they happen to get in a car and you can get the license plate of the car– that’s going to help us figure out who was in the business at that time, should that purchase later come back as fraudulent.”
The Federal Trade Commission has additional tips on how to protect your identity.