Social Security Fraud Higher Among Hispanics
April 19, 2005
Keren Rivas

Monica Moreno does not understand why someone would want to steal her identity.

A 35-year-old mother of two, Moreno has been an Alamance County resident for the past six years. But recently she discovered that for the past three years someone had been working using her identity -- name, Social Security number and date of birth.

According to a letter she received from the Internal Revenue Service last year, Moreno owed taxes for wages she received during 2002. The letter stated Moreno had worked at a print company in Madison, a local hosiery mill on Tucker Street, an employment agency in Lumberton and a warehouse in Eden -- all places Moreno had never worked. She requested a credit report and discovered that in 2003, the same person had used her credit to go on a shopping spree. After filing a police report and calling different federal agencies, Moreno thought everything was fine.

She was wrong.

She received another letter from the IRS last month, stating she owed $2,018 in taxes for $11,705 she had supposedly earned at two different companies in 2004. She is still trying to solve this latest claim. Though Moreno has seen a photograph of the woman who has taken her identity, she has no way of knowing where this person lives.

"It is not fair," Moreno said. "If this person commits a serious crime, I will be the one who has to pay the consequences."

Like Moreno, thousands of people in North Carolina are victims of identity theft each year.

"It is definitely a real phenomenon," said Brian K. Walker, district manager at the county's Social Security Administration office in Burlington.

Since he took that position in 2003, he has seen an increase in the number of people who come to request a copy of their earnings statement to check for identity theft.

But perhaps Moreno, by being a legal Hispanic resident, is at a higher risk of being a victim of identity theft.

Detective R. P. Ingram, financial crimes investigator with the Burlington Police Department, said that of the 100-plus Social Security fraud cases his office handles on average each year, about 75 percent of the victims are Hispanics.

"Hispanics are my biggest group," Ingram said. "It is a heck of a problem."

According to U.S. Census population estimates, there were close to half a million Hispanics living in the state in 2003. Of this number, about 300,000 do not have the necessary documentation to work legally, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Considering these numbers, it is not hard to imagine why the instances of identity theft have increased among Hispanics, said Juan Sanchiz, Hispanic/Latino outreach coordinator for the Burlington Police Department. This situation not only increases the number of victims but also the number of fraud schemes.

Ingram said his division has arrested several people involved in the production of counterfeit Social Security cards. He has also seen several cases of legal Hispanics who sell their Social Security numbers for a couple hundred bucks.

Though Moreno said she understands people need to work, she does not think stealing someone else's identity is the way to do it. Walker said there is no local statistical data to measure the number of cases involving Social Security fraud. Local employers have an outlet to check if the Social Security number an employee provides is valid or not, Ingram said.

However, if the number is valid they cannot find out who the owner of the number is. Walker said employers can ask the Social Security office to check if the name and the number match but only for new employees. Most people find out they have been a victim when they receive a letter from the IRS or when they try to use their credit. The best way to protect against identity theft is being proactive, Ingram added, particularly because clearing one's name can take years and a lot of money, Ingram said.

For alien residents, being a victim of identity theft can cost them their chance of becoming an American citizen. Sanchiz said he has dealt with identity theft victims who have been denied U.S. citizenship because of the wrongdoing of others. In those cases, he added, the law offers a way to clean their records, but it takes time.

Since Moreno found out someone was using her identity, she has missed several days of work notarizing letters, filing reports and making telephone calls. But most of all, she's lost her peace of mind. "I feel like I am on a scale," Moreno said. "Any sudden move on the other side and I am the one who falls."