QPP weighs in on forgeries

Published 4:59 pm Saturday, September 12, 2009

Quality Pork Processors in Austin is part of a national problem, managers say, and they are trying to do what they can to confront it.

According to Austin police statistics, 32 of the last 45 local cases of aggravated forgery — incidents that often involve Hispanic or Latino workers using aliases to illegally gain employment — have come from QPP.

QPP Human Resources Director Dale Wicks and CEO Kelly Wadding said the company uses the federal E-Verify program — which is not required for private employers — on top of an in-house background check, but both agree that the fraud schemes are tough to crack and are ultimately the responsibility of the federal government.

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(Cases where aggravated forgery is the primary charge)

January, 5

February, 6

March, 11

April , 6

May, 3

June, 15

July, 11

August, 9

September (to date), 1

Total, 67

2008 Year-End Total, 42

Many of these frauds involve someone — often an illegal immigrant — buying a valid Social Security card from someone else and assuming that identity.

The Social Security cards then can be parlayed into state IDs, birth certificates and, eventually, employment.

And since the Social Security cards are real — as are the subsequent state and local IDs — investigators often have a tough time picking out forgeries.

The market for such schemes seems to be expanding — Austin has seen 67 aggravated forgery cases so far this year, according to Mower County court data, up from 42 in 2008.

Nationally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the agency that investigates these cases and deports individuals when necessary — has reported a steady increase in arrests stemming from “worksite enforcement investigations.”

Such investigations can include highly-publicized raids — such as the one in 2006 at the meatpacker Swift & Co. in Worthington, Minn. — but often come down to document checks, ICE spokesman Tim Counts said.

‘It hurts us, too’

Wadding said if there is one thing that he wants people to know about his company, it’s that they want to have a legal workforce as much as anyone.

“There is no advantage for us to hire someone illegal to work here,” Wadding said. “None.”

Wadding and Wicks said the company uses a stringent check on all new hires and often catches people using aliases or fake documents before they get hired.

That process involves the standard I-9 form, which asks for things such as name and address, as well as a few forms of ID.

The company then runs data through E-Verify, a federal database that determines if a worker is eligible for work or not.

In addition, QPP uses a database they purchase that checks Social Security numbers, and notes where the cards were issued and when.

A number of red flags can pop up along the way — such as a notice from E-Verify that a worker is ineligible or a Social Security number that was issued before the potential hire’s birthdate — and Wicks and Wadding said the company has no problem turning these people away.

But when all the checks come back as positive — and they often do because the fraudulent documents aren’t fakes — the company says its hands are tied.

“We’re obligated to hire them,” Wadding said of people who appear to have authentic documentation.

QPP claims it is trying to get better and better at catching forgeries — Wadding said all personnel people at QPP have gone to ICE seminars and have been trained at detecting fake IDs.

The company has also been in contact with ICE about a new version of E-Verify that would include pictures — something Wadding said would help but wouldn’t solve the whole problem.

To do that, Wadding said he thinks there would ultimately have to be some type of national identification card used.

“I’d love nothing better than to have a tool to verify if people are legal to work,” he said. “It’d help our hiring process a great deal.”

In the meantime, the two managers said they’d continue cooperating with law enforcement when cases come up.

In these cases, authorities often ask for copies of an employee’s documentation — which Wicks and Wadding said is provided without trouble.

If a worker is found to be working fraudulently, Wadding said they are let go immediately.

“We’d be better off to not hire them in the first place,” the CEO said. “It hurts us, too.”

Gaining a ‘foothold’

Det. Travis Heickley of the Austin Police Department said between one-third and one-half of his cases this year have involved identity theft or aggravated forgery.

The detective has been working hard to crack down on the problem in Austin — but like Wicks and Wadding at QPP, Heickley said there is only so much he can do at the local level.

A typical case involves a referral, often from someone in a different state saying their name has been used in Minnesota.

Heickley gathers information from this person — documents that let him know the “victim is actually a victim.”

After that, Heickley contacts the employer and asks for similar documents — including E-Verify forms, I-9s and birth certificates.

When he’s able to prove that someone has been using a fraudulent alias, Heickley said he “overwhelms” them with evidence, and they often admit to the crime on the spot.

Next, Heickley applies for a search warrant, which allows police to find out “who they really are.”

These searches — which sometimes include ICE agents — often turn up aunts, brothers and other relatives who also are using aliases.

“They’ll use (aliases) to get a foothold and create their own identities,” Heickley said. “It’s a snowball effect.”

And while the detective has been doing what he can, he said there are a number of challenges for investigators.

For one, he said he doesn’t have access to all the information he needs readily — for example, Heickley said he is unable to type in a name and get a Social Security number to pop up.

That largely stems from society’s desire to keep personal information private, but Heickley said it often creates “significant problems” for his forgery investigations.

In addition, Heickley said he’s noticed more and more cases where people are moving from alias to alias.

“That’s what we’re beginning to find now … IDs are being sold multiple times,” he said. “Some people will go from one ID to another.”

With IDs seemingly being bought and sold more frequently, Heickley said he is fearful the problem may soon become too complex to be solved.

“In another 10 to 15 years tops, these people will create histories,” he said. “We won’t know who is who.”

To prevent that, Heickley said a solution needs to start at the federal level, whether that be a fingerprinting program for all citizens or simply more data being accessible for government agencies at all levels.

And while that may go against the ideals of privacy that many citizens hold, Heickley said it is essential when dealing with these cases.

“I would just as soon invite people into my life that would protect me,” he said.

A federal investigation in Austin?

What ICE is actually doing in Austin regarding QPP — or any other company — is unclear.

Counts said it is standard policy to not confirm or deny any investigations.

“We get a lot of leads and tips,” he said. “So we don’t want to cloud the reputation of any individual.”

Heickley, Wicks and Wadding all echoed that sentiment — none confirmed or denied any particular ICE investigation at QPP.

Heickley did say, however, that ICE is aware of the QPP situation and that he contacts federal officials frequently.

“They see the problem. They’re interested,” Heickley said. “(The 32 cases at QPP) can’t happen without getting the attention of someone, somewhere.”

While he noted a raid is “possible” at QPP, he said such measures are becoming less common because of federal regulations and public outcry.

If such a raid did occur, Wicks and Wadding said they would cooperate.

But they would much rather see a more positive solution found at the federal level, so that a plant that they say employs a lot of “good people” can rid itself of any illegal workers — now and in the future.

“This is not just an Austin problem,” Wicks said. “It’s a national problem.”