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ID fraud a growing criminal enterprise in Hall County
Law enforcement tracks identity thieves one phone call at a time

Aggravated identity fraud indictments

  • 2015: 2
  • 2016: 4
  • 2017: 8 as of Monday

Source: Hall County Clerk of Courts

Some people make their living off of selling counterfeit identification documents, said Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad task force officer John Higginbotham.

“I’ve worked some cases that went right back to cartels, (from) the information given to me. Just like any illicit business, they don’t stick to one thing to make money,” he said. “They can make money off drugs. They can make money off documents. ... They make money everywhere they can make it.”

According to the Hall County Clerk of Courts, there were two indicted cases of aggravated identity fraud in 2015. In 2017 to date, there have been eight indictments.

Aggravated identity fraud deals exclusively with stolen identification information for employment, whereas general identity theft and fraud is most commonly for illicit financial gain.

“There’s a black market for the identification necessary to gain employment,” Hall County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Matt Gaudio said. “Where does that black market originate from, things such as that? Hard to say, really.”

Aggravated identity fraud as a chargeable offense has been on the books in Georgia since 2011 as part of the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.” It is a felony punishable from one to 15 years in prison and/or a fine up to $250,000.

In May, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it was revamping the green cards and employment authorization documents to prevent fraud.

“These redesigns use enhanced graphics and fraud-resistant security features to create cards that are highly secure and more tamper-resistant than the ones currently in use,” according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services news release. 

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh previously told The Times about employment information for these fraud cases often being purchased on the street or possibly at flea markets.

Gaudio said there will often be an uptick around tax season, because the Internal Revenue Service will notify people of owing “taxes on the job that they never really had.”

A June report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration revealed the IRS’s processes to identify fraud victims were insufficient when reviewing the 2015 processing year. According to the report, an estimated 497,248 victims were not identified by the IRS.

“These victims did not have an IRS tax account and many were claimed as a dependent on a filed tax return,” according to a statement by the inspector general. “Without a tax account, the IRS cannot add an employment identify theft marker. Notifying these individuals will require the IRS to develop additional procedures.”

Despite having an IRS account, another 60,823 victims did not have their account updated by the IRS with a employment identity theft marker, according to the report.

In the 2015 processing year, there were 1,153,165 instances of potential employment identity theft in electronically filed tax returns.

“This can cause significant burden to innocent taxpayers, including the incorrect computation of taxes based on income that does not belong to them,” according to the report.

Gaudio said his case usually begins with a phone call from someone outside of his jurisdiction, claiming they have been affected by identity fraud. He then asks for the local police report and a copy of the person’s identification, which will lead the investigator to the last known location in Hall County where it was used.

It then takes a quick check with a business’ human resources to discover the potentially fraudulent employee.

“All of the business are really helpful toward law enforcement to get us the information to prosecute a case, because they don’t want to hire people that are using someone else’s identity,” Higginbotham said.

The more documents connecting to an identity, the higher the price. A phony birth certificate and driver’s license could go for $1,500, according to suspects interviewed by Higginbotham.

A separate section of the 2011 law was the requirement for private employers to register and use E-Verify, a federal work authorization program. 

Gaudio said the best advice for companies is to do their best to verify the employment documents from the prospective employee are true and accurate.

“E-Verify, oddly enough, will only tell you if a Social Security number is a good one or a valid one. It won’t tell you necessarily who it belongs to or if it’s fraudulent. It’s a useful tool, but it is limited in what it can do,” Gaudio said.