* Immigration enforcement spurring demand for stolen IDs
* Recent busts signal trend
By Lisa Baertlein
HEMET, Calif, May 12 In 2008, California tax
authorities sent Miguel Chavez a letter saying he failed to
file a return on income earned at Ashley Furniture Industries.
But Chavez never worked there.
Chavez since discovered at least 12 occasions when people
used his name and Social Security number to get work, and his
plight may be a cautionary tale.
Employers, increasingly double-checking would-be workers
because of a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration, may
inadvertently be fanning demand for stolen documents -- with
all the consequences that befall victims of identity theft,
from tax and credit problems to trouble with the law.
"People who are here without status and are desperate to
work have resorted to co-opting documents that are legitimate,"
said Michael Wildes, an immigration attorney and a former
Chavez, 46, is all too familiar with the havoc identity
theft creates. Three years after the discovery, he is still
trying to clear his name. His credit is in a shambles and he
worries that the people using his information could get in
serious legal trouble, putting him at risk of arrest.
"At first I was upset, then I was worried, then I was
frustrated and overwhelmed," said Chavez, a Mexico-born, legal
SECURITY BREEDS INSECURITY
Stricter immigration enforcement -- along with tighter
post-Sept. 11 national security -- is making it harder for
undocumented workers to use their real names and a fake or
stolen Social Security number to get a job. [ID:nN12256565]
U.S. immigration agents have been targeting employers
rather than workers since 2009, and high-profile crackdowns
like the probe at Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG.N) have prompted
more employers to adopt E-Verify, a government database
recommended, but not required by U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE). [ID:nN20201127] [ID:nN20183536]
Beyond that, Arizona and a few other states require all
employers to use E-Verify to vet prospective employees.
While E-Verify will flag names and Social Security numbers
that do not match, it is not very effective at ferreting out
workers who assume the identity of a legal worker.
Brock Nicholson, the ICE special agent in charge of Georgia
and the Carolinas, said an increase in identity theft "will
probably be a logical outcome" of increased verification.
"People learn what we look for and they do things to try to
avert that," Nicholson said.
An ICE investigation in his area last month resulted in the
federal indictment of managers at a McDonald's Corp (MCD.N)
restaurant franchise in Savannah, Georgia. They were accused of
selling stolen identities of U.S. citizens to illegal workers,
whom they then hired.
In March, county sheriffs in Arizona arrested more than two
dozen people as part of an identity theft bust at Pei Wei
PFCB.O restaurants in the Phoenix area.
TAX MAN CALLING
Identity theft victims accounted for 3.5 percent of the
U.S. population last year, and the thieves chalked up $37
billion in costs, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
Experts focus on the financial impact of the crime and do
not study the link between the estimated 11 million illegal
immigrants living in the United States and the country's
roughly 8 million identity theft victims.
If the user of a stolen identity is not opening new
accounts or making major purchases, victims tend to be in the
dark until they hear from the tax man, said Phil Blank, senior
analyst for security, risk and fraud at Javelin.
"Then you have the problem of proving it really wasn't
you," Blank said.
Chavez, who suspects his identity was stolen when he
refinanced a mortgage in 2005, had exactly that experience when
he contacted the employers of his law-breaking doubles.
"I had no voice. Every time I told them it wasn't me, they
said 'prove it,'" said Chavez. "I've done everything I can do,
other than visiting the companies themselves."
Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue in the United
States, but employers, lawyers, citizens and illegal immigrants
agree on one thing -- the current system is not working.
An attorney for Ashley Furniture Industries, employer of a
Miguel Chavez, told Reuters the company uses E-Verify and that
it is not solving the problem of illegal immigration.
"This is the tip of the iceberg. Can you imagine the mess
you're going to have when people start drawing Social
Security?" Ashley attorney Bruce Kostner said. "It's appalling
to me that nothing is being done to address this."
President Barack Obama this week issued an impassioned call
for immigration reform in a speech at the U.S.-Mexican border,
but that is no consolation for Chavez, who said he cannot renew
his permanent residency card until his problem is fixed.
"The issue of immigration and identity theft is going to be
a complex one for a long time," said Jay Foley, executive
director of San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein. Editing by Robert MacMillan)