Unmasking Terrorist Identity Fraud

By Wilcox, Norman A., Jr.; Regan, Thomas M. | USA TODAY, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Unmasking Terrorist Identity Fraud


Wilcox, Norman A., Jr., Regan, Thomas M., USA TODAY


PRIOR TO SEPT. 11, governments and businesses were sensitive to identity imposters, but they viewed the problem primarily as a financial matter--that is, as a significant component of fraud. Called identity theft, statistics were gathered about its effects on businesses, hearings were conducted on its harm to individual victims and, in 1998, Federal legislation was passed to criminalize it.

However, it was the events of Sept. 11, and the investigation conducted afterwards, that awakened society to the fact that the criminal use of false identifiers and false identification documents is not just a significant component of fraud, but of terrorism. Further examination has revealed that they are an integral part of many crimes committed by global criminal groups, including drug traffickers, gun runners, cyber criminals, and alien smugglers. In each of these areas, the organized criminal enterprises exploit weak or nonexistent identity verification systems. This broad criminal use of false identifiers and false identification documents requires a new term different from "identity theft," which has a more limited connotation. We refer to it as "identity fraud."

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four jet airliners, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, one into the Pentagon in Virginia, and a fourth into a field in western Pennsylvania. Two of the terrorists were Abdul Azziz Alomari and Ahmed Saleh Alghamdi. Alomari was part of a group of five who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, bound from Boston to Los Angeles, which ultimately crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower. Alghamdi was in another group of five terrorists who hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, also bound from Boston to Los Angeles, which slammed into the south towel. In addition to the obvious acts of terrorism, Alomari and Alghamdi were guilty of identity fraud.

About a month before the hijackings, the pair used an accomplice to approach a secretary of a Virginia attorney. They paid her to complete false Virginia identity affidavits and residency certifications. The documents indicated that the two had Virginia residences when, in fact, they Jived in Maryland motels. Using the false documents, notarized by the Virginia secretary, they obtained Virginia state identification documents. These were used by them to board the ill-fated planes.

Reports are replete that the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 hijackings made wholesale use of false identities, fraudulent identification documents, and fictitious Social Security numbers. Purportedly, five of the terrorists, in addition to Alomari and Alghamdi, procured fraudulent Virginia identification cards. Another five reportedly obtained fake Social Security numbers. Authorities believe that, at one time or another, each of the 19 terrorists may have used false Social Security numbers.

Identity fraud, that is, the criminal use of false identities or fraudulent identification documents, has been the subject of much discussion, debate, and legislation during the recent past. However, most of that attention has been in the context of its use as an instrument of fraud, such as in credit card, securities, and bank fraud. The activities of the Sept. 11 terrorists now cause us to realize that identity fraud is not just the tool of the con artist. It is, when properly recognized, indigenous to any criminal enterprise, whether it be drug trafficking, alien smuggling, or cyber stalking.

On Oct. 30, 1998, following considerable debate about the deleterious effects of identity theft, the Federal government passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 (ITADA). It cast as an identity thief anyone who "knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law. …

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