Immigrant is charged in driver's-license fraud The Division of Motor Vehicles said the arrest was part of its effort to combat identity theft.

Posted: December 27, 2002

A taxicab brought Antonia Silva to Camden's Division of Motor Vehicles office from a distance of about 65 miles.

A police cruiser took her away.

Somewhere in between, the Mexican immigrant lost almost all of her savings - along with her bid to become an American, at least in name.

Silva, 27, was arrested last Friday and charged with impersonation and identity theft after, DMV officials said, she presented false documents to obtain a New Jersey driver's license.

The state Department of Transportation announced the arrest yesterday, citing it as one result of its efforts to crack down on fraud since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's incumbent upon us to ensure people who receive driver's licenses and registrations are who they say they are," DMV director Diane Legreide said. "For the safety and security of all New Jerseyans, we are vigorously chasing down and prosecuting all cases and will continue to do so."

The agency, which is being overhauled by state lawmakers, came under fire after it was alleged that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers held New Jersey licenses and later when it was discovered that the car used by the pair charged in the Washington-area sniper case had been registered in Camden.

Yet Silva's story, as told through an interpreter to Ed Bonnette, who heads the DMV office in Camden, provides a window into a crime more common than the tragedies that have cast the agency in a negative light.

"There's a business out there - a cottage industry, if you will - that preys upon these people desiring to get documents to give them an identity," Bonnette said.

He said that every week he reports at least one illegal immigrant for walking into his office with phony papers sold by scam artists.

Silva's odyssey began, Bonnette said, with a call to a number in central New Jersey. She arranged to meet the man who answered that call at a nearby phone booth and, in exchange for someone else's identity, gave him $1,500 she had squirreled away working at the Hyatt in New Brunswick.

Her connection gave her a Puerto Rican birth certificate, a Social Security card, and a learner's permit - all marked with the name of a Camden woman. The man even coached Silva on details, such as the middle name of her alter ego's father. But DMV officials became suspicious when signatures didn't match.

Bonnette said Silva had hundreds of dollars in her purse - enough to get her back to New Brunswick by cab. And enough to post bail. She was released the day of her arrest after posting $250.

Contact staff writer Gaiutra Bahadur at 856-779-3923 or bahadug@phillynews.com.

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