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Thieves get hands on license-making machines

Last year, Florida bought computers to make driver's licenses that are virtually impossible to counterfeit.

But brazen South Florida thieves have been stealing the computers, sometimes later returning to the scene to pick up accessories.

In seven burglaries at five virtually unprotected driver's license offices from Key Largo to Okeechobee, crooks have gathered all the hardware, software and supplies for five complete computer systems _ everything they would need to crank out the state's new high-tech, counterfeit-resistant licenses.

The $15,000 computer rigs _ which include a printer and camera _ may be destined for lucrative document mills that prey on desperate immigrants or supply IDs to fraud artists. They are capable of producing some of the best forgeries ever.

"These are not nickel-and-dime IDs so kids can get into bars," said Chris Firth, a Florida Highway Patrol investigator. "There is no doubt in my mind that these were stolen for high-dollar economic crimes."

No bogus licenses have been detected circulating so far, said Sandy Lambert, chief of the division of driver's licenses of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Although the system has such security features as passwords and locks, she said, it is likely the system could be compromised.

"It has been my experience that it is highly likely that these machines will be successfully accessed," said Jeff Herig, special agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the computer evidence recovery section.

New licenses have a digital picture of the driver, a magnetic strip with key identification information and a color code for people below the legal drinking age. The state started issuing them last year.