WASHINGTON - Sen. Susan Collins is a woman of many faces.
The Maine Republican's countenance appears on a Connecticut driver's license that displays a birth date making her 22 years old - even though she really is 47. Her smile also shines on a Florida license that indicates she's 23, a U.S. Army Reserve identification card, two different press cards and a Boston University student ID card.
Collins' apparent multiple personalities are the products of a growing number of Web sites that offer the opportunity to create or buy all sorts of counterfeit identification documents.
For a small fee, or often for free, Internet users can download programs or buy software that will print driver's licenses, birth certificates, immigration cards, job certificates and school transcripts.
One site, for example, promises "step by step instructions on what you need to create fake ID that is so realistic that you could fool your own mother." The cost: $40.
Another site offers "authentic downloadable certification certificates to get you a job as an Activity Coordinator" at a day-care center. The site asks, "Why should you pay a thousand dollars for a couple of certificates just to learn how to plan activities for individuals?" This one also charges $40.
The ease with which these fake IDs can now be obtained over the Internet concerns Collins, who, as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, is holding a hearing on the issue Friday.
The hearing comes after a five-month investigation by the subcommittee staff - which created her many faces in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building for a total cost of about $50.
"It just was astonishing to me the ease with which my staff could manufacture these phony IDs, which were amazingly high-quality," Collins said in an interview Thursday. "This just shows there is a tremendous problem. Undoubtedly, fake IDs will be used by underage students for the perennial problem of buying liquor, but the far more serious crime, like identity theft and bank fraud, is what's frightening to me."
Fake documents, she acknowledged, are far from new. But, she said, with the Internet, counterfeiters "can reach a far broader market of potential buyers than they ever could by standing on a street corner in a shady part of town."
There are no precise figures on how widely these counterfeit documents are used or on their impact; government enforcement officials usually only discover them when the people using them commit crimes.
But David C. Myers, identification fraud coordinator for Florida's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, estimates that 30 percent of all phony IDs he sees now come from the Internet, up from 1 percent two years ago. He said some false-ID sites have received more than 10,000 inquiries on a single day; a single operator can generate annual income from Internet ID sales of more than $1 million.
Other law enforcement officials say the Internet has made it easier for criminals to get fake documents and personal financial data.
In particular, the government has seen a lot of phony IDs used in counterfeit corporate check scams, said Greg Regan, special agent in charge of the financial crime division for the U.S. Secret Service. In these schemes, individuals use fake IDs - with either completely false names and Social Security numbers or genuine names and numbers falsely obtained - to open bank accounts and deposit counterfeit checks from major corporations. The individuals then close out the accounts, taking the funds in cash, before the banks realize the checks and customers are not real.
"We're faced with the reality that it's a lot easier today to be a counterfeiter than it was 15 years ago," said Jim Hesse, chief intelligence officer at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's forensic document lab. Hesse attributes that to the Internet, increasingly sophisticated computer software and inexpensive printers.
Especially troubling to law enforcement officials, however, is the very nature of the Internet. "There's a reason it's called the World Wide Web," Hesse said. "It has a larger audience and is open to the world," making it all the harder to regulate counterfeit operations.
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