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For sale: N.J. licenses Sunday, September 30, 2001


Hundreds of illegal immigrants are obtaining authentic New Jersey driver's licenses from the Division of Motor Vehicles through a thriving black market whose tentacles reach from Ridgewood to Camden.

From scores of interviews, The Record has learned that the immigrants commonly pay $2,000 to brokers who shepherd them through the process, sometimes right up to the windows at the DMV.

"It's a big, big business," says Detective Thomas Clayton of the Eatontown Police Department, which in the last year has arrested some 60 people -- most of them illegal immigrants -- for license fraud.

From old ethnic enclaves in New Jersey's cities to new immigrant colonies in the suburbs, it is an open secret that official licenses can be had by illegal immigrants, who are forbidden to drive in much of the nation, including New Jersey.

Illegally obtained driver's licenses have entered into the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Several of the 19 hijackers are believed to have held licenses or ID cards from different states, documents that helped them move around the country. Maine State Police reported that two hijackers had New Jersey licenses.

The Record found that the New Jersey license fraud network is statewide. Some licenses appear to be granted by overworked DMV employees who fail to spot the phony documentation provided by brokers. In other cases, The Record was told, DMV workers appear to be involved in the fraud. Some have been fired. State police say they have arrested five DMV employees in connection with such fraud in the last year.

"Everyone here knows about it," an illegal Ecuadorean immigrant says in Spanish, between sips of cafe con leche at La Riviera Restaurant in Newark. "Nearly everyone around these neighborhoods is illegal, and they know.

"It took just a few months after I came from Ecuador to find out how I could get a license," says the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "A taxi company owner told me where I could find the people who could get me a real license."

In Ridgewood, two Costa Ricans who arrived three months ago paused from their lawn-trimming work when asked about licenses.

"Oh, sure," one of the men says as the other nods knowingly. "For about $2,000, some of our friends have gotten them."

Overwhelmingly, the people seeking licenses are in New Jersey to work, often at menial jobs, to support families or send money home. They need transportation, and a legitimate license can provide an identity vital in applying for bank accounts or credit cards.

But the illegally procured licenses also put untrained drivers on New Jersey roads. In some cases, brokers arrange for others to take the written and road tests, and immigrants who don't know how to drive just show up to have their photos taken. One immigrant told The Record that the first time he drove a truck with his new license, he hit a bridge abutment. He was unaware of the height restrictions.

"Many of my friends have had accidents," says a Mexican from Florida, who was visiting his former neighborhood in Passaic. "They just make sure they take off before cops arrive."

More crucially, against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks, the license scam exposes a dangerous security loophole.

Two of the terrorists aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the plane that hit the World Trade Center's north tower, had New Jersey licenses, says Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland. New Jersey State Police and the FBI declined to confirm the Maine reports, and it remained unclear whether the hijackers had any of the visas that allow foreign nationals to drive.

"Obviously, most of the people who go to Motor Vehicles are not a problem," says state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest. But he also acknowledges that some people use bogus documents to get real licenses.

"I'm not suggesting that they are terrorists, but once terrorists know we have a system that's like a sieve, they'll use our system against us."

Back at La Riviera on Newark's Ferry Street, the Ecuadorean opens his black wallet to reveal an assortment of fraudulent documents that construct his false identity.

There's a Social Security card, a green card, a passport, and a driver's license.

All look remarkably real. Only the most trained eye would notice that the Social Security card lacks the scalloped edge and rough surface of an authentic one. The green card lacks the distinctive bald eagle holograph. And the stamp on the passport is missing a crucial code.

The license, though, is flawless.

That is because it was not manufactured under the cover of darkness, illicitly concocted in some basement. His license came straight out of the Newark DMV office.

The Ecuadorean, who operates a car service, says he paid $1,500 to a three-man team of brokers -- two Peruvians and a fellow Ecuadorean he refers to as Walter -- to obtain the license.

"Doors swing wide open because of this," says the 29-year-old Ecuadorean, smiling triumphantly as he taps the little piece of plastic that allows him to drive for a living, open a bank account, and get credit cards. It also gives him the photo identification that allows him to board an airplane.

The man recounts his experience. He says the Peruvians took him and another illegal immigrant to a DMV office in Camden County for the written and road tests.

There, a young woman reviewed his passport, which had a phony I-551 Immigration and Naturalization Service stamp claiming he was lawfully in the United States. She waved him on.

"She looked young, inexperienced, and obviously didn't notice anything wrong," he says.

A DMV employee commented about "how interesting" it was that the agency was seeing a lot of people from Newark lately.

"I got nervous about that, but it went nowhere," the man says.

Although some immigrants interviewed say their brokers directed them to certain clerks in the crowded DMV waiting rooms, the Ecuadorean says his middlemen waited outside in the parking lot.

"They didn't want to be seen with us," he says. "And the other guy and I made sure not to appear to be together."

He passed the tests, but instead of returning to Camden County to be photographed and pick up his license, the Ecuadorean went to his local DMV office in Newark.

Walter had warned him they "could be difficult" at Newark, but the gamble paid off -- although he says he sweated through a tense moment.

A female worker tossed his passport back at him and said: "This passport is phony."

He says he feigned being shocked. He thought the passport was legitimate, he told her, because his attorney had gotten it for him. She sighed -- and waved him on to get his picture taken.

He thinks she felt bad for him.

The license, he says, has changed his life.

In the two years after his arrival, he worked a series of physically draining jobs, including construction and janitorial work.

"I walked and walked to so many jobs, or took buses, and that limited the work I could do," says the man, a clean-cut, dapper dresser with a college degree in business administration who worked in a bank in Ecuador.

"We're not doing any harm," he says. "This is why we want licenses, to drive to work, to do these jobs, to feed our families."

Next, he says, he plans to get a commercial driver's license. A municipal employee in a city he declines to identify promised to pull some strings to help him get it.

"He feels that I'm a hard worker," he says, "and deserving of that kind of break."

Even those who get licenses through the black market don't know much about how it operates.

The brokers work hard to keep it that way.

These middlemen usually work independently, as entrepreneurs of sorts. Although their methods of operation vary, many employ similar tactics: working only by referral, giving only cell or beeper numbers, and speaking in codes over the telephone.

But through numerous interviews with police, immigrants, DMV employees, and ethnic community leaders, a picture of the license fraud underworld emerged.

It is fluid and shadowy, with some middlemen often operating in one location for a short time, then moving on.

Others are bolder, plying their illicit trade on the side of a legitimate business. Immigrants say they know of operators of driving schools and even an interpreter at a municipal court in North Jersey who have moonlighted as license brokers.

Like spas and travel agencies, brokers even offer special packages. The more an immigrant pays, the better the service.

Under the full-service option, the broker creates the fraudulent identification, then goes to the DMV office and takes the written test and road test for his customer.

After passing the tests, the broker takes the paperwork to the customer, who may go to any DMV office in the state to present the papers, smile for the camera, and collect the license.

Some brokers subcontract services.

A 22-year-old Middlesex County man who was recently arrested with a bunch of fake birth certificates describes himself as "a small player." He says a broker hired him several months ago to go to the DMV and take written tests for customers at $200 a shot.

"They validate the permit. I give it to the person I work for," he says. "He gives me my money and that's it."

One North Jersey broker says she charges $2,300, to be paid in three installments with $1,000 down.

"It's a lot of money," says Clayton, the Eatontown detective. "If you can do a license or two a day, you can make a lot."

In May, Clayton arrested Charles Rears at the Eatontown DMV office for allegedly trying to take a driver's test under someone else's name.

Officers who searched Rears say he was carrying a driver's license in another person's name and four birth certificates. Police suspect that Rears intended to use the documents to get licenses for several people. His case is awaiting grand jury action.

Whatever their fees and however they operate, most brokers provide immigrants with sophisticated counterfeit papers that can elude the detection of an overworked DMV employee, who can review more than 1,000 documents each day. Some of the documents have the immigrants' real names; others don't.

From his desk at Lodi police headquarters, Sgt. Ed Reuter pulls out some of the fake identification one immigrant carried when he came to the local DMV office to change the address on his fraudulent license.

"Look at this Social Security card," says Reuter, a ruddy-faced man with a no-nonsense gaze. "It's one of the best I've seen."

He says it's easy for such documents to slip past an untrained observer or a harried DMV clerk.

In general, Reuter says, "they're very good at the Lodi DMV. They spot phony documents and call us. But some clerks, because of so many people coming through, might look at these and not see anything wrong. Some of these documents look real."

The DMV trains its employees to spot fake documents; it also provides a handout illustrating what an authentic green card or work authorization document looks like.

"One of the jobs of every motor vehicle [agency] in the country is to be concerned about the security of the document," says Lino Pereira, the DMV's acting director.

"There are people who will try to take advantage, use every trick they can find to try to beat the system. We're concerned about it; we talk about ways to make the system more and more difficult to beat."

He declined to comment on The Record's findings that license fraud is rampant in New Jersey.

"If it's a particular system, we're not going to discuss it. We don't want to discuss those things openly."

"DMVs have ways to verify fraudulent identification," says Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in Arlington, Va. "But there's no foolproof system. Fraud is a big problem and identity theft is huge. Jurisdictions are working to stay ahead. But people are crafty."

Indeed, the brokers are "very careful, about everything," says a Costa Rican immigrant who lives in Irvington and bought a license.

"They only give their beeper numbers, and they work with you only on the recommendation of someone they know. You can't say, 'I heard you sell licenses, I'm looking to buy one.' Even if you're Hispanic, they figure you could be a Puerto Rican FBI agent.

"They don't want to leave a trace. When you call them, you have to know what code language they use. You don't call asking how much they charge for a license. You call and ask, 'How much do you charge to clean a home?' "

Many years ago, he paid $400 for a stolen identity.

The brokers instructed him to report a stolen wallet to police under an assumed identity. Just before he entered the station, they stopped him. He was wearing his ID bracelet; they told him police might see that it did not match the name he was claiming.

"They notice everything," he says of the brokers.

Sometimes, though, the brokers make mistakes.

The agent of a DMV office in North Jersey says she gets suspicious when someone insists on speaking on behalf of a license applicant.

"It's one thing when someone is translating, but when I get someone who doesn't want to let the person applying for the license say anything, that is a sign that they have a story made up and don't want the person to make a mistake," says the agent, who asked not to be identified.

"I tell them to go sit down and I ask the person questions. If it's fraud, the person will tell me he was born in a place that's different from what the birth certificate that they handed me says."

Many brokers keep the immigrants in the dark, giving them false and incomplete names and meeting them in public places that reveal nothing of their identity.

"These immigrants often are people who are very poor, not educated, and they are not too familiar with their surroundings," says Wilson Bernal, a Colombian community leader from Englewood. "They're not sure where the broker is taking them, or what DMV they went to. They get disoriented."

In Morristown, Diana Mejia, who heads a group that helps new immigrants, echoes Bernal.

"The immigrants often come from the shantytowns in their countries," she says. "They never owned a car or bicycle. They just walked everywhere around their little villages. Many have never handled a map, or know how to read one. They've asked if they need a passport to go to California.

"Once they leave Morristown and are taken to another town or another county, especially, they're lost and confused about their location."

The black market thrives for three key reasons: a rising flood of immigrants, hefty profits, and indifference by many law enforcement officials and ethnic leaders.

To the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants believed living in New Jersey, most from Central and South America, a driver's license amounts to "gold," says Mark Eliades, who recently left the Morris County Prosecutor's Office to become a state deputy attorney general.

A license can literally raise them up in the world. It means the difference between waiting on corners each day, hoping someone will pick them up for short-term work in construction, landscaping, or cleaning, and being able to drive to more stable, better-paying jobs.

That is why, law enforcement officials and ethnic leaders say, illegal immigrants will pay upward of $2,000, which can take them months to earn, for a license that costs other New Jersey residents $18.

Their investment comes with huge risks. Sometimes the scam ends in an arrest. Sometimes brokers make off with their money and never deliver. And sometimes, as a young Mexican man from Westwood learned firsthand, immigrants can wind up with a license and Social Security number in the name of someone with a criminal record.

Where there is demand, there can be eager suppliers even among those who are supposed to be weeding out fraud. The state police arrested "approximately 35 individuals" for driver's license fraud in the last year, and "approximately five of those people were DMV clerks," says Sgt. Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the state police in Trenton. On Friday, he could not immediately provide additional details.

The agent at the North Jersey DMV office has fired three employees she suspected of wrongdoing. The agent says one worker was stealing blanks that are used to make licenses, and two others tried to push some applications past clerks who check documents.

"One of them said, 'I know these people, just put the papers through,' " the agent says. "After she did it several times, it became suspicious."

But she didn't report the employees to the police.

"Some had children, or they're single parents -- who'll take care of the children if they go to jail?" the agent says. "I just let them go, and let them find another world."

DMV spokesman Dana Sullivan says agents have that discretion -- even though such misconduct is a second-degree crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Eliades, who has worked on investigations involving DMV corruption, says middlemen and DMV workers who engage in fraud are not "doing this out of friendship with the immigrants."

"They're doing it for the oldest reasons in the world -- money and greed. That's what we found in our investigations."

Similar schemes have been revealed well beyond New Jersey.

Brokers in Virginia helped some of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers get state identification cards from a motor vehicles agency, the FBI says.

A driver's license examiner for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in Pittsburgh acknowledged last week that he had provided permits to transport hazardous materials to ineligible drivers, charging each $50. Eighteen people were arrested; the FBI later announced that the arrests were not related to the hijackings.

In New York last year, authorities uncovered a citywide market in fake documents. Security guards, window clerks, and others at DMV offices in lower Manhattan, Harlem, and the Bronx were charged.

The brokers collected $1,200 to $1,700 from each immigrant and passed along up to $500 to each DMV employee involved, court papers said.

In Illinois, even a former inspector general was found guilty of concealing corruption in a bribes-for-licenses scandal. Dean Bauer, 73, starts a one-year prison term next Saturday. More than 40 people in Illinois have been charged with accepting or paying bribes for driver's licenses, some of which were issued to people who later were involved in deadly crashes.

Many courts and police agencies have long viewed license fraud as a relatively minor matter.

Illegal immigrants caught passing bogus documents are usually charged with forgery, a third-degree crime punishable by three to five years in state prison. The cases, however, are often downgraded to disorderly persons offenses.

Even those who make and sell the IDs seldom see prison, in the rare instances police are able to catch them. Despite convictions, some brokers return to their illicit trade.

Some police officers feel sympathy for the illegal immigrants.

"When there's a violation of the law, we have to uphold it," says Reuter of the Lodi Police Department, which recorded 20 license fraud arrests between January and June. "But they get involved in this because they need to feed their families, they have children. They're good people. They want to work.

"Who's the bad guy in all this?" he adds. "The guy who dupes these poor slobs, who charges these immigrants all this money for these licenses. You know how long it takes these immigrants to earn that kind of money? About six months for a lot of these people."

Some DMV and law enforcement officials try to go after license fraud, but they complain that the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service often refuses to confirm whether an immigrant is in the country legally, a requirement for a New Jersey license, or whether the immigrant's green card number matches the name he or she is using.

The INS cites a federal privacy protection law that bans giving out personal information about immigrants over the telephone.

Rep. Marge S. Roukema, R-Ridgewood, is trying to arrange a meeting between New Jersey's DMV and the INS to find a way to verify immigrants' status while complying with the privacy law.

In January, the DMV says it intensified scrutiny of all license applications by having more people review the authenticity of the documents. The DMV faces huge obstacles. Of the scores of illegal immigrants interviewed by The Record, all but 10 possessed a state-issued license, or knew of at least one undocumented person who did.

In its defense, the DMV says its workload is staggering.

The state's 45 DMV agencies issue more than 10 million documents a year, including nearly 2 million licenses and renewals. Much of this work falls on the shoulders of employees who work at the counters and earn $7.50 to $10 an hour.

Even if police are called to the DMV, they often run into a brick wall when questioning immigrants about the brokers.

"I've been in this department 17 years and no one has ever given us information on a middleman," Reuter says. "They don't talk, they're afraid. We ask how they got the license, and they say they're not sure about the details.

"They say, 'It was a man in Washington Heights or Passaic.' They say they don't know the name of the guy. They say, 'A friend told me to go to him.' We ask who is that friend, and they say, 'He went back to Peru.' "

Reuter throws his hands wide open and shrugs.

"What can you do?"

-- K (, September 30, 2001

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