Documents for the Undocumented 

At an Oakland DMV, immigrants could buy a driver's license. The tale of how they did suggests the problem may be widespread.

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Another DMV employee snapped the agent's photo and administered a written exam. Even though Agent 1 "intentionally marked the wrong answer on the overwhelming majority of questions," according to an affidavit, Aliganga "tossed the exam aside, barely (if at all) glancing at it." The agent went back outside and got into Rivera's car.

Minutes later, Rivera's cell rang, and she began speaking in Tagalog. An FBI review of phone records later showed that the call came from Aliganga. After another call, Rivera instructed the agent to walk back inside and go directly to the driver's-license window. There, Aliganga gave Agent 1 a handwritten temporary license. Agent 1 returned to Rivera's car and handed her the other $1,500.

Over the next several months, Rivera gave the agent several more temporary licenses as each one expired. Agents also tailed Rivera, who drove either a BMW or a Mercedes, from her Daly City house to the Claremont DMV, where she met people in the parking lot and sent them inside to Aliganga. The FBI also rifled through the trash at Rivera's home and tailed Aliganga in her Mercedes from the Claremont DMV to her home in Fairfield.

In the spring of this year, the bureau placed two more agents undercover. Agent 2 called Rivera in early May and told her about having "passed" through the US border without a visa -- essentially admitting illegal entry to the United States. A few weeks later, Agent 2 also told Rivera that a friend (Agent 3) was in town for only a few weeks and needed an ID right away. Aliganga processed Agent 3's request, while a friend of Aliganga -- 43-year-old DMV employee Brachelle Fifer of Oakland -- did the same for Agent 2. On June 9, Agent 2's license arrived in the mail inside a handwritten envelope postmarked Oakland. Agent 3's ID came in the mail five days later.

In late June, the FBI arrested Rivera, 54, and Aliganga, 53. Both confessed and said they used Fifer occasionally when Aliganga was not available. Fifer, however, appeared to be getting scammed, too. While Rivera collected anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per license, the two told investigators that they paid Fifer only $100 each when she helped them. Fifer also was arrested and indicted. In searches of Rivera's car and home, agents also found her 2004 and 2005 calendars, which provided the details of her operation, including the names of more than two hundred customers.

It's a myth that computer crimes are usually committed by hackers. In reality, it's often low-level employees who find a flaw in the security system of a corporation or public agency. "We see it all the time: You entrust employees with too much information, especially low-paid, transient workers," said Lt. Richard Nichelman of the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force, whose agency was not involved in the DMV investigation. "It's a safeguard issue."

Safeguards were clearly lacking in the DMV's computer system. Although the system was set up to flag the use of bogus or stolen Social Security numbers by cross-checking them with the computers of the Social Security Administration, it had one fatal flaw -- it trusted employees too much.

It's unclear exactly when Aliganga discovered the flaw, but sometime after she was promoted in August 2001, she realized that she could repeatedly use the same phony Social Security number and the computer would accept it -- and her bosses wouldn't notice. But more importantly, the system also let her override the Social Security Administration cross-check, DMV spokesman Steve Haskins acknowledged. Haskins would not say how long the flaw existed, nor would he say what steps the DMV took to fix it. Apparently it took more than one, because at some point during the investigation, Aliganga stopped using the bogus Social Security number and began using actual -- but stolen -- numbers. When asked if it was still possible for a DMV worker to get away with what Aliganga did, he said: "We have taken a closer look and we have reconfigured our system and closed the loophole."

But the evidence uncovered by the FBI's investigation suggests that Rivera and Aliganga's ring might just be a tiny part of the problem. Besides Aliganga and Fifer, two other Claremont DMV employees, Stephanie Denise Davis, 37, and Leneka T. Pendergrass, 27, both of Oakland, also were arrested and indicted for processing fraudulent drivers' licenses. Both also are accused of gaming the DMV computers, but they apparently operated separate scams unrelated to the one run by Aliganga and Rivera. Pendergrass also is accused of manipulating the DMV computer so that she could register vehicles that had not passed the state smog test.

Haskins and FBI spokeswoman Quy said the Claremont sting was a part of a wider investigation of DMV offices around the state and nation, but neither would comment on whether investigators have run reports to find out whether any other DMV employees also ever keyed in fake or stolen Social Security numbers. Nor would Haskins provide an estimate of how many other illegal IDs may have been issued statewide.

When told of the investigation and the flaws it uncovered at the DMV, some legislative leaders expressed dismay. "This is a chilling revelation," said state Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, a Southern California Republican who has opposed calls for state-sanctioned driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. "Who knows if the next Mohammed Atta may have already bought a license from a corrupt DMV employee?" Hollingsworth said that he hoped the DMV was thoroughly investigating whether fraud was rampant in the agency: "Who knows how many other times these scams have been replicated throughout the state?"

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