US & Canada

Puerto Rico targets ID fraud with new birth certificates

Flags fluttering in Puerto Rico
Image caption Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1898

July will mark a fresh beginning for Puerto Ricans - literally - as the government of the US territory begins issuing new birth certificates in an attempt to tackle identity theft.

Existing birth certificates for Puerto Rico's 3.9 million inhabitants - and the estimated 1.4 million citizens who live on the US mainland - will be invalid from 30 September.

Criminal gangs have targeted Puerto Rico because anyone born there is a US citizen from birth, and the certificates can be used to make fraudulent US passport applications.

Faustino Fuentes School on Puerto Rico's eastern coastline has an idyllic setting, between the lush green hills of the national park and the azure blue of the Caribbean Sea.

There are a few tourists, but otherwise life is usually quiet.

The calm was shattered three years ago when identity thieves broke in and stole the birth certificates and other documents of 105 pupils here.

Ana Esquilin, the school secretary, showed me where the thieves broke down the door with a baseball bat.

The filing cabinet still bears the marks of the break-in.

The criminals were after the children's birth certificates, which they knew they could sell on the black market for up to $10,000 (£6,600).

After a series of school burglaries across Puerto Rico in 2007, the FBI discovered that up to 12,000 Puerto Ricans were the victims of an identity theft ring.

Two of Ana's children, Katyshia and Nanushka, had their birth certificates stolen. Ana said the experience was devastating - her children were being impersonated by strangers.

Hispanic names

Puerto Rico has been a US territory since the Americans captured it from the Spanish in 1898, and people born here are American citizens.

Image caption Ana Esquilin says the theft of birth certificates was traumatic

A US Department of State study found that 40% of fraudulent American passport applications made with birth certificates involved documents from Puerto Rico.

So after pressure from the US, Puerto Rico's legislators voted to invalidate all the old birth certificates and issue the new, secure ones starting on 1 July.

"Most of the people that are seeking quickie US citizenship are people with Hispanic names and Hispanic surnames," said Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico's Secretary of State.

"And most of the birth certificates issued in Puerto Rico are to people with Hispanic surnames."

A second reason for the huge black market was the way Puerto Rican organisations, from schools to junior sports clubs, asked for birth certificates as proof of identity and kept them on file.

"Unfortunately we had the custom for many decades of asking you to turn over an official copy of your birth certificate for virtually everything you did in life," said Mr McClintock.

Under the new rules, organisations will no longer be able to keep multiple copies.

The new birth certificates have special anti-fraud properties which neither McClintock nor Wanda Llovet, director of Puerto Rico's Demographic Registry, would divulge, citing reasons of security.

Image caption Kenneth McClintock believes the issue is a reminder of Puerto Ricans' status

Mrs Llovet showed me the new birth certificates, which she said were made of paper specially ordered from France, and then printed in the US, where watermarks and other unspecified security features were added.

Only the signatures of Puerto Rico's governor and Mrs Llovet are printed on to the certificates here.

Mr McClintock says the new system should prevent almost all of the identity theft experienced on the island.

"Up to now, you broke into one school and you would take away 700 birth certificates at a time. Now, to steal 700 different birth certificates, you're going to have to break into 700 different homes," he said.

Discrimination

At the Demographic Registry office in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, most people queuing to find out more about the new law seemed to support the aim of eradicating identity theft.

Only one woman complained, telling me it wasn't necessary, and that it was going to take too long for her to apply for a new birth certificate.

On the US mainland, Latino Rights groups have been critical of the change, saying the invalidation of Puerto Rican birth certificates is yet another problem for Hispanics to deal with.

Some Puerto Ricans living in the US say their birth certificates were rejected when they applied for a driving licence, before the new law came into effect.

I asked Kenneth McClintock if making all Puerto Ricans apply for new birth certificates could lead to discrimination against those living in the 50 states. Most certainly not, he replied.

"People who have biases will always try to find some sort of an excuse to discriminate against people, but I think what this issue has done is remind America that people living in Puerto Rico are American citizens from birth," he said.

"Therefore people who previously may have thought, oh Puerto Ricans, Costa Ricans, isn't that more or less the same thing, now they know that Puerto Rico is part of the US."

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