Immigration fraud ring hits Tennessee

3:40 PM, Sep 29, 2012   |    comments
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Written by
Emily Kubis
The Tennessean

Federal immigration officials are investigating a widespread illegal operation involving the mailing of genuine Puerto Rican birth certificates and other forms of identification to undocumented immigrants living in Tennessee and throughout the U.S.
A federal magistrate judge in Nashville ruled in a preliminary hearing Thursday that there was probable cause for a grand jury to pursue an indictment against Andy Javier Torrez-Martinez, also known as Ezekial Rico-Mendez, an illegal immigrant living in Smyrna.

There have been other, and some larger, arrests involving illegal documents in at least 14 states and Puerto Rico, indicating extensive and organized illegal operations from Nebraska to Rhode Island to Florida.

Special Agent Michael Perez, an agent within with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, brought a criminal complaint against Rico-Mendez after a multistate investigation of a group involved in the sale of illegally obtained birth certificates and other documents used for identification and as proof of citizenship sold to people in Middle Tennessee.

The three criminal complaints brought against Rico-Mendez include conspiracy to unlawfully possess and transfer five or more identification documents, sale of United States citizenship documents and sale of Social Security cards.

The complaint, written by Perez, describes the investigation, which began in July 2011 and involved two cooperating defendants. In April 2012, agents arrested the first unnamed defendant based on the purchase of a genuine Puerto Rican birth certificate and a matching Social Security card.

The defendant identified her supplier as Wandy Omar Sosa, who was located and arrested in Woonsocket, R.I. Sosa cooperated and told agents he acted as a broker contacted by vendors through cellphones to arrange transactions wired through Western Union.

After receiving a fee, Sosa paid Puerto Rican suppliers who would then mail documents to addresses in Middle Tennessee through the U.S. Postal Service.

Sosa identified Andy Javier Torrez-Martinez as a vendor, and on Sept. 22 postal inspectors confirmed that a parcel had been mailed from Puerto Rico to Torrez-Martinez. The inspectors obtained a federal search warrant and intercepted the parcel, finding identification documents.

After the inspection, agents delivered the parcel to Torrez-Martinez and he accepted delivery. Agents executed a separate search warrant and recovered the documents.

In the course of an interview on the property, agents discovered that the defendant's real name is Ezekial Rico-Mendez, and he had obtained Puerto Rican identification upon moving to Tennessee from Mexico six years ago.

While being questioned during Thursday's hearing, Agent Perez said that the documents were genuine, as opposed to being created on a computer or copied, and they corresponded to living Puerto Rican citizens. He specified that the documents were being brought into the United States to be used as evidence of U.S. citizenship for work purposes and to obtain driver's licenses.

Upon his arrest, Rico-Mendez admitted to receiving documents from Sosa, transferring them to undocumented immigrants in this district and that he was here illegally.

The government's attorney, Hilliard H. Hester III, declined to comment on details or the extent of the case, calling it "an investigation that's continuing to be looked at."

A widespread problem

Though this case occurred in Middle Tennessee, identity theft using Puerto Rican documents appears to be increasingly widespread, at least throughout the United States.

A one-count indictment against 50 individuals in Puerto Rico was unsealed in January, charging the alleged trafficking of the identities of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens.

That indictment was the result of an extensive investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. The logistics of the identification fraud ring worked similarly to the Rico-Mendez case, involving suppliers, brokers and vendors.

The indictment says that brokers were operating in 14 states, making coded telephone calls using terms such as "shirts," "uniforms" or "clothes" to identify documents. Brokers asked for "skirts" for female customers and "pants" for male customers in various sizes referring to the customer's desired ages.

Vincent Picard, a spokesman for ICE, said all 50 defendants are still in judicial proceedings and the investigation is ongoing.

"The indictment ... alleges that from April 2009 to December 2011, the defendants operated an extensive black market identity fraud ring," Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a January news release.

"Those willing to buy and sell personal identifying information and documents should take notice of today's actions. The department and our law enforcement partners will not allow this kind of illegal activity to continue."
A similar scheme

Nine months later, 14 people were charged in New Jersey on counts of theft and fraud in a similar Puerto Rican document scheme.

On Sept. 19, U.S. attorney Paul Fisher announced that a New Jersey-based task force had shut down one of the nation's largest and longest-running stolen identity tax refund fraud schemes. The 14 individuals were charged in five criminal complaints with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and substantive counts of theft of government property.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the New Jersey district, the case involved more than 8,000 fraudulent U.S. income tax returns in five states.

Emily Kubis is with the Seigenthaler News Service-MTSU.
She can be reached at emilykubis@gmail.com.

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