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Fake IDs are just a click away

A N.J. man tells Senate panel how it's easy to create phony documents using the Internet.

Thomas Seitz launched his criminal career from a computer in an Old Bridge, N.J., public library.

First, he culled authentic Social Security numbers and names from public records on government Web sites. Then, he accessed numerous Internet Web sites that offered fake birth certificates and drivers' licenses.

After using the sites to create several false identities, the 23-year-old New Jersey man was caught by the police. Today, he is serving a three-year sentence in Macclenny for forgery-related crimes and is waiting to be sentenced on a bank fraud conviction.

Seitz testified Friday before a Senate investigative subcommittee that wants law enforcement agencies to focus more effort on shutting down false identification Internet sites.

"I realize that what I did was illegal," Seitz said, "but I would also say that it was not very difficult to accomplish."

After a five-month investigation, the Senate subcommittee found more than 60 Web sites that offered falsified forms ranging from Social Security cards to college diplomas to green cards. The subcommittee estimates that there are likely dozens of more sites.

Some sites charge for their services while others offer free facsimiles that can be downloaded and altered.

There are a number of obstacles to finding and prosecuting the operators of these Web sites, law enforcement officials told the subcommittee. Some disguise their actual location to shield themselves from U.S. laws. The lack of a physical operation allows many Web sites to shut down one day and reopen under a new name the next. And the sheer number of Web sites can make it difficult to comprehensively search the Internet.

Florida's Fraudulent Identification Unit, part of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, has already shut down 33 fake ID Internet sites. But despite the progress, "this problem continues to grow," said David Meyers, special agent in the unit.

One site the Florida unit helped close down was The Austin, Texas, proprietor, Robert Sek, told Meyers that he made more than a million dollars selling false IDs to mainly college students. He is under criminal investigation.

Several of the sites have disclaimers such as "For Novelty Use Only" to protect themselves. Some groups that want to limit government regulation of the Internet say that sites have a right to publish this information. The burden of the crime, they say, is on the person who creates false identities.

Stanton McCandlish of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes civil liberties, said efforts to crack down on these sites might be unconstitutional.

"No matter how much Congress might wish this information were not out there, they can't censor it," he said.

Seitz said he used a site that offered free look-alike New Jersey birth certificates.

After downloading a certificate, he added a name he had found on the Internet. Then, he found a blank W-2 on the Internal Revenue Service site, which he filled in with his new identity. Using those documents, he obtained a photo identification card from the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles.

With his newfound identity, Seitz applied for and received car loans over the Internet. He was convicted of purchasing a car under his fake identity and bank fraud for using false identities to apply for loans. Nationsbank, which operates a car loan site based in Jacksonville, said that Seitz applied for 14 loans under various assumed names.

"Anyone with some computer skills can . . . produce some high quality fake documents," Seitz said.

_ Researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.