Law enforcement officials said yesterday that they have broken up the largest known document fraud ring in Northern Virginia, charging 26 people in a scheme to sell identification to thousands of Indonesian immigrants nationwide.
The document mill, operating primarily out of three businesses in Fairfax County and a fourth in Prince William County, was unusual in its size and scope, federal officials said. For millions of dollars in fees, it helped Indonesians fraudulently obtain documents ranging from green cards (permanent-resident documents) to passports, driver's licenses, Social Security cards and even baptismal certificates.
No one answered the phones at the four businesses, all of which authorities raided yesterday, and it was unclear if lawyers for any of the defendants had been appointed. By late yesterday, 16 of the 26 people charged had been arrested.
A particular focus was phony applications for asylum in the United States. Court documents say applications would contain false claims that applicants had been persecuted by Muslims in Indonesia because of their Chinese ethnicity or Christian heritage. The suspects also are accused of coaching applicants to manipulate asylum officers by crying, pleading or featuring women as the lead applicant out of a belief that they would be viewed more sympathetically than men.
"This is the largest case of this kind we've ever had in this office," U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, whose territory covers about half of Virginia, said at a news conference in Alexandria announcing the charges.
Marcy Forman, director of the office of investigation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called the network one of the nation's largest. "It was one-stop shopping for immigration fraud," she said.
The two-year investigation primarily targeted four Indonesian immigration brokers: the Chinese Indonesian American Society in Fairfax Station; Asian American Placement Services in Springfield; Kumala Nusantara in Burke and Chinese Indonesian Pribumi Community Service in Manassas.
Charges against the 26 people ranged from asylum fraud to labor certification fraud, identification document fraud and conspiracy. Twenty-three are Indonesian citizens, two are U.S. citizens and one is believed to be an Australian of Indonesian descent.
Officials said the investigation by a federal-state task force was the latest step in a crackdown on document and identity fraud that has intensified since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Seven of the 19 hijackers in the attacks had obtained fraudulent Virginia identity cards.
"In the post-September 11 world in which we live, we must be aggressive about this kind of crime," said McNulty, who added that there was no connection between yesterday's case and terrorism.
It is unclear precisely how the investigation started. But federal officials said some of the Indonesians who fraudulently obtained the documents contacted authorities after becoming suspicious.
Authorities said the ring had been operating nationwide since 1999 through so-called "branch offices," where family members or friends of the defendants would contact prospective applicants. It also advertised nationwide in Indonesian magazines.
In one common tactic, court documents said eight female Indonesian immigrants filed applications for asylum between Oct. 31, 2000, and Jan. 16, 2002, in which they claimed to have been raped by a male taxi driver because of the applicant's Chinese ancestry. But it turned out that each application was essentially identical, with only the date and location of the alleged rape changed.
Now, immigration officials are reviewing all asylum claims filed by the four immigration brokers. Any found to be granted fraudulently will be revoked, and the applicants may be sent back to their home countries.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.