A Local 2 undercover investigation exposes a world of forgeries, fakes and new identities.
After getting a tip, Local 2 Investigates discovered a group of men prowling a north-side flea market in search of customers who wanted "papers."
With hidden cameras rolling, Local 2 Investigates visited one of several flea markets on Airline Drive near West Gulf Bank. Less than a minute after parking our car at the market, Local 2 Investigates was approached by a man who asked, in Spanish, whether we were looking for "papers." When Local 2 Investigates agreed, the man instructed us to speak with another man in a different area of the market.
This second man then led us around a corner to a quieter part of the market where he pulled out a thick stack of what appeared to be forged government documents. While showing us this stack of IDs, the man told us we could get a Mexican consular card, a United States immigration card, a Social Security card, a Texas identification card or driver's license. We wanted a state-issued identification card. A man then told us the price of the ID would be $150 and instructed us to walk to yet another part of the market.
When Local 2 Investigates arrived in this third area, our cameras spotted two men taking pictures, gathering personal information and accepting cash payments for fake IDs from several other people. One of the men in this area then approached us and asked what information we wanted on our Texas ID. After the picture was taken and information typed into a smartphone, we were then told to wait for a phone call. We noticed these men used smartphones to take pictures and relay information to someone nearby who was making the fake IDs.
After about two hours, we received a call that our Texas identification card was on the way. We were again instructed to walk toward a back area of the market where the man who took our picture carefully slipped us a Texas identification card. The card came complete with a new name, a Houston address and a state-issued identification number.
On a hunch, Local 2 Investigates looked up that identification number and discovered it already belonged to a woman living in the Houston area. Local 2 was able to find this woman and warn her that her personal information had been stolen.
Our investigation comes two years after several men were arrested in this same area during a raid conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The 2010 raid was the result of a lengthy investigation into counterfeit government documents by the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force. "Operation Fake ID" led to arrests at the Sunny, La Tia Pancha and Cintas flea markets, according to a news release issued by the United States Attorney's Office on July 26, 2010.
"It's a horrible problem," said John Brewer, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's Office identity theft section. "The flea markets are infamous for it."
Brewer, who specializes in prosecuting fake ID and identity theft cases, said stealing someone's personal information is one side of the fake ID problem.
"I've got some serious concerns about what that allows the criminals to do," said Brewer.
Brewer said those making and possessing fake identifications run the gamut from kids trying to buy alcohol to criminals trying to sneak past police detection.
"It creates a huge vulnerability," said Armando Astorga Jr., assistant special agent-in-charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations. "It's a severe threat because anyone can obtain them."
Astorga said what's most worrisome are the highly-sophisticated fake documents coming from overseas. Astorga showed Local 2 Investigates several bogus documents confiscated by agents. Many of the identifications came with watermarks that show up under black light, holograms and other security features.
"It's harder for local law enforcement or even us federal law enforcement to identify the document as fake," said Astorga.
Astorga said ICE agents have even found known terrorists living under fake names with fake IDs.
"Criminal organizations actually operate by obtaining fake documents for their members,' said Astorga.
Astorga adds shutting down fake ID operations in foreign countries can be difficult, depending on a country's resources, level of cooperation and where the crime falls on a particular country's priority list.
The problem of fake government identifications led to the creation of the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force, which is comprised of more than two dozen federal, state, county and city agencies.