Illegal Immigration and Identity Theft

July 24, 2018 Updated: July 24, 2018

WASHINGTON—One impact of illegal immigration that is rarely publicized is that of identity theft.

Credit scores are shot, mortgages are turned down, a child is unable to get into college, or an individual is ineligible for assistance—there are many forms of identity theft, and many ways it can impact a person.

“But when it’s done for illegal employment, typically it involves a social security number and adopting the name and date of birth,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director at Center for Immigration Studies. Often that information is then used to obtain other documentation such as a driver’s license or credit cards, as well as public benefits.

The fraudulent documents are often obtained through a document ring, Vaughan said. “One of the most notorious schemes is for people to purchase Social Security numbers that were issued in Puerto Rico.”

Vaughan said previously lax security measures in Puerto Rico meant criminals could get names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers off registration forms when parents signed their kids up for baseball leagues, for example. And inmates who are going to be incarcerated for a long time sell their numbers to Dominican Republic heroin dealers operating in the New England area.

Vaughan said illegal immigrants are one of the “very common” groups involved in identity theft.

“There have been some older studies that found that identity theft that was done for the purpose of illegal employment by someone in the country illegally did represent a very large share … we don’t know exactly, but between 30 percent and 60 percent of all identify fraud,” she said.

Often the victims have no idea that someone has stolen their identity because the social security administration doesn’t notify people if it detects a number has been compromised.  

They may apply for a mortgage and get turned down and have no idea why, Vaughan said. In Utah, young children who had social security numbers were being denied social services like a Head Start program or a nutrition program because someone had their number and was earning money under it.

“There was an illegal alien who had stolen the identity of an elderly man living in Louisiana who was denied veterans’ benefits and some other things that he was entitled to … and this illegal alien apparently had been siphoning off a lot of his benefits and defrauding this man,” Vaughan said.

A house for sale in northeast Washington on June 23, 2015. Victims of identity theft are often unable to obtain a mortgage because their credit score is ruined by the person who stole their identity. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Tax Number

She said many illegal aliens obtain a tax identification number from the Treasury Department, which is not a social security number, but it can provide eligibility for low-income workers to tax breaks, such as the earned income credit and child tax credits.

If the illegal alien finds that they owe tax at the end of the year, they often will simply not file.

“They are here illegally. They know nothing is going to happen to them. It’s only when they get a benefit, like a refund, that they will file in most cases,” Vaughan said. “So it’s really not a benefit to the U.S. government and of course it encourages people to be here working illegally—which is a problem for Americans.”

Vaughan said the problem has been compounded due to lax immigration enforcement policies, particularly under the Obama administration.

“The attitude was that people in the country illegally were forced into this criminal activity because they had no other way to work here,” she said. “It was considered victimless, harmless, just something that they had to do to support their families, and the victims were largely ignored.”  

She said if employers used the E-verify system, which is currently voluntary, it can root out identity thieves and illegal aliens.

Arizona requires all employers to use both E-verify and the social security number verification system (SSNVS).

“It helps them identify problems. Not just for immigration-related problems,” Vaughan said. “It helps them identify, for example, if there is a child molesterer who has adopted someone’s identity to get a job in a daycare center … there are lots of reasons people want to hide their identity. Maybe they are trying to evade child support payments.”

The Damage

Once identity theft is detected, it’s only the beginning. One help website says it takes up to 600 hours of contacting the appropriate institutions and agencies, reporting the fraud, getting credit repair, and attempting to reverse the damage.

A quarter of victims end up borrowing money and 15 percent have to relocate and sell possessions, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

“It can be a huge problem if your credit has been trashed or somebody is racking up bills or a criminal history in your name—that’s very difficult to get erased,” Vaughan said.

What To Do If You’re a Victim

People can check their own social security status through the E-verify system on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website:

If there is a problem, file a police report right away.

  • Contact credit agencies.
  • Contact creditors.
  • Keep a record detailing everyone you’ve contacted, on what dates, what you said and what they said.

The Federal Trade Commission has a section on identity theft at:

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