Officials don’t know how much is fraud; keyboard errors accounted for many of the discrepancies investigators found.
The Homeland Security Department maintains fingerprints of every foreigner who enters the country to help prevent fraud, but 825,000 of those records appear to be associated with multiple individuals, according to internal investigators. The sheer number of discrepancies raises questions about how many immigrants intentionally are faking their identities to evade authorities versus falling victim to poor typing.
Frank Deffer, a DHS assistant inspector general, noted some of the mismatches in the department’s fingerprint database were tied to individuals with rap sheets. The identification tool is the responsibility of the US-VISIT immigration program.
“Although most of the inconsistencies can be attributable to data input issues, US-VISIT is unable to quantify the extent to which the same individuals provided different biographical data to circumvent controls and enter the United States improperly,” he wrote in a report released this week. “Without this information, US-VISIT may be hindered in its ability to share information that could help border enforcement agencies prevent improper entries into the United States.”
Investigators discovered hundreds of thousands of situations where one set of prints corresponded to multiple names and birth dates. The database holds hundreds of millions of fingerprint records; the irregularities represent only 0.2 percent of individuals logged.
“Although this is a very small percentage of the total records, the volume of records makes it significant,” Deffer wrote. “In some cases, we found that individuals used different biographic identities at a port of entry after they had applied for a visa under a different name, or been identified as a recidivist alien.”
Instances of offenders trying to game the system include a women who illegally entered the United States in 2006 and then tried to get in again -- using variations of the same name -- in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In another incident, a man used two different identities to apply for visas, and after being denied entry, he used yet a third name and birth date to try again later the same year.
Other individuals, with no criminal records, also endeavored multiple times to get into the country using different names and birth dates over several years. “In one example, the same set of fingerprints was associated with nine different names and nine different birthdates in 10 different attempts to enter the United States,” Deffer stated.
Many of the situations involved women who legally altered their names. “We found that nearly 400,000 records for women have different last names for the same first name, date of birth and [fingerprint identification number],” he wrote. “These instances are likely women who changed their names after a marriage.”
During the study, auditors examined records covering 1998 through 2011.
Most of the time, US-VISIT personnel try to resolve cases in which people who appear to be one and the same have different information listed in records, the auditors found. The researchers are not specifically targeting scams, Deffer explained. Accidental typos, the fact that various immigration-related agencies use incompatible data formats and other keying mistakes are factors they look for when probing mismatches. During the course of typical procedures, US-VISIT has picked up on only two instances of fraud, agency officials reported to the IG.
The enormity of the conflicting data, however, may obscure actual fraud. “These inconsistencies can make it difficult to distinguish between data entry errors and individuals potentially committing identity fraud,” he wrote.
In a written response to a draft report, Rand Beers, undersecretary of DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate, which oversees US-VISIT, said the program has “initiated a proactive review” of ID data to spot fraud and alert the proper authorities. As of May 8, US-VISIT had researched 1,200 official alien registration numbers filed for immigrants trying to enter or obtain benefits, and added 192 of those individuals’ prints to a watch list of known or suspected criminals.
“Subjects suspected of fraud may be or have already attempted to commit passport fraud, U.S. citizen-lawful permanent resident fraud and fraud involving possible alien smuggling,” Beers wrote in the letter.
Deffer, however, said this review stops short of examining possible fraud committed by travelers such as visitors from visa waiver countries who do not have alien registration numbers, or do not need visas for entry.
US-VISIT is in the midst of expanding its database to potentially verify IDs using iris and facial recognition. Program spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman recently said, “while US-VISIT is testing new tools, technologies and approaches to integrate US-VISIT’s biometric and biographic applications into a comprehensive set of automated services, the goal remains the same: to ensure that U.S. government decision-makers have access to the information they need to determine someone's identity, when they need it.”