Born Again? Puerto Rico's Birth Certificate Fiasco

This summer all Puerto Ricans will have the chance to be born again -- at least on paper.

The government of Puerto Rico is invalidating every birth certificate issued on the island before July 1, 2010, in an attempt to curb rampant fraud and identity theft that officials say has ruined lives, strained social service programs and compromised national security.

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Each of Puerto Rico's 4 million residents and the estimated 1.2 million Puerto Rico-born Americans living in the 50 states will have to apply for new vital documents to legally prove that they exist and remain eligible for government benefits.

It's a radical solution to what many say has been a serious and growing crisis involving Puerto Rican birth certificates, which are used to apply for everything from U.S. passports to Medicaid.

The U.S. State Department and Homeland Security Department estimate that an astonishing 40 percent of all U.S. passport fraud cases in recent years involved Puerto Rican birth certificates, though exact numbers are unknown.

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"There are so many [Puerto Rican birth certificates] floating around… a lot fall into the hands of unscrupulous individuals," said State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokeswoman Rosemary Macray. "We've uncovered many cases of people posing as Puerto Ricans" in applying for U.S. passports.

One law enforcement group that tracks so-called South American theft groups across the U.S. says fraudulent Puerto Rican credentials have become common cover for criminals, and police are being trained in how to identify them.

"I'd say 60 percent of them [suspects] will tell you they're from Puerto Rico," said Robert Taylor of the nonprofit South American Theft Group Intelligence Network.

"The birth certificates are so believable, the passports are so believable that even seasoned cops are fooled by it until they ask certain questions like, 'what's the national animal?'" he said. "It's a frog… but that stupid phrase has gotten more people caught with fake documents."

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Officials say Puerto Rican birth certificates, many of which bear common Hispanic names, are sold widely on the black market, fetching thousands of dollars each. And they are not in short supply.

"In Puerto Rico, you left a copy everywhere you went," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the most senior member of Congress who is of Puerto Rican descent.

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Puerto Rican Certificates Widely Circulate, Fraud Prone

Puerto Ricans regularly distribute original, certified copies of their birth documents like they might be business cards or resumes, leaving them with church offices, athletic team coaches or summer camp counselors as part of membership applications.

"I don't know why we do it," said Luis Balzac, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. But "anybody who grew up in Puerto Rico saw it happen."

The documents often remain unclaimed, lingering in filing cabinets and wastebaskets, easy targets for would-be thieves.

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