Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two arrested in BMV fraud (South Bend Tribune)

Two arrested in BMV fraud
Men accused of helping illegal immigrants get paperwork, plates
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer
8:45 p.m. EDT, June 2, 2011

SOUTH BEND - Federal prosecutors have charged two men with helping illegal aliens fraudulently obtain vehicle registrations and license plates from the Mishawaka Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch.

Ramon Garcia, 38, of South Bend, and Paulino Ascencion-Apolino, 22, of Elkhart, are charged with mail fraud and harboring illegal aliens. They were held Thursday without bond in the St. Joseph County Jail.

Prosecutors said the men ran the scheme out of three offices: Servicios Mi Tierra, with locations at 3902 W. Western Ave. in South Bend and 23737 U.S. 33 in Elkhart, and Agencia Latina in Highland, Ind.

Their allegedly criminal enterprise apparently sprang up in reaction to a 2007 BMV policy change. In November of that year, BMV clerks began verifying drivers Social Security numbers with an online Social Security Administration database. Under the old BMV system, there were few controls on customer data, but since the change, if the name and Social Security number dont match, the BMV will not issue a drivers license, identification card, permit or vehicle title, according to an affidavit filed in court by Steven L. Havlin, special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security based out of Chicago.

But Garcia and Ascencion-Apolino found a loophole. Because corporations and limited liability companies, or LLCs, do not have Social Security numbers, the BMV lets them title and register vehicles with employer identification numbers issued by the IRS.

So illegal aliens, lacking Social Security numbers, were paying Garcia and Ascencion-Apolino to obtain vehicle title and registration documents, using the businesss employer identification number, prosecutors said.

A government informant, who wore a concealed audio and video recording device and was accompanied by an undercover agent, went into the Western Avenue office and told Ascencion-Apolino that he needed to register a vehicle and obtain a license plate, but he had only an individual tax identification number, which the IRS issues to people who lack Social Security numbers but must file income tax returns.

A week later, Ascencion-Apolino, after obtaining an Indiana temporary registration plate and title for the informant, gave those items to him, charging him $330.

Mishawaka license branch staff became suspicious when they started noticing that representatives of Servicios Mi Tierra were coming into the branch to obtain vehicle titles and registration documents for 10 to 20 vehicles per week on behalf of other people.

When car dealers or other entities who handle multiple transactions at once do so, they normally present the transactions in bulk and make one payment for all of the transactions. But Servicios Mi Tierra representatives always paid in cash and insisted that each transaction be handled separately, the branch manager told agent Havlin, according to court records.

Mary Hatton, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney David Capp, declined comment Thursday when asked how many illegal aliens Garcia and Ascencion-Apolino might have served. Ascencion-Apolino told the informant that the enterprise had been operating for about four years. Indiana secretary of state records indicate that Servicios Mi Tierra LLC was created in February 2008.

Also unclear was whether immigration officials will now try to pursue action against the illegal aliens.

Records identifying those individuals could exist in computers and files that federal agents seized Wednesday from the Western Avenue office.

The Western Avenue Servicios Mi Tierra office was closed and empty Thursday.

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