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Breeding Change: Puerto Rico’s new Birth Certificate Policy

By Shawn Wilhelm, Marketing Coordinator, ChemImage Corp.

Identity Theft
When discussing identity theft, we commonly think of individuals attempting to steal banking and credit card information for their own financial gain. For these types of thefts, banking and credit card institutions are constantly creating new security measures to protect your information and assist you when your information has been compromised. While this type of financial crime is serious, a potentially more costly type of identity theft can be found in the form of breeder documents used commonly by immigrants looking to enter into a country illegally.

Development of Breeder Documents

Breeder documents are stolen or counterfeit forms of identification such as birth certificates and social security cards, which are then used to obtain official government issued documents including driver’s licenses and passports; essential for creating a new identity. Once these genuine documents are acquired it becomes very difficult to detect the falsified identity. The consequences for victims of this type of identity fraud can be severe. They may find an entirely new credit history or an arrest record caused by someone using their information to live in a new country illegally.

Identity thieves typically don’t use a person’s full identity because of the difficulty and expense of acquiring the information. Instead, they may use multiple people’s information to create a new identity. Here in the U.S., social security cards can use the thief’s real or assumed name and be given a number at random. Some of these numbers may come from living or deceased U.S. citizens or a number yet to be issued by the Social Security Administration. In the case of an unissued number, once issued, a newborn baby may be given the documented history of a life currently being lived by someone else.1

Birth certificates used as breeder documents can be counterfeit, altered or stolen; and one of the more popular countries to acquire an official copy of a birth certificate in recent years to enter into the U.S. has been Puerto Rico. The value of these stolen documents is said to be worth up to $6,000 on the black market and the U.S. State Department estimated that 40 percent of the passport fraud in the U.S. involves counterfeit or stolen birth certificates from Puerto Rico.2

History of Puerto Rican Birth Certificate Fraud

In an article published by USA Today, a spokesman for the Federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency in Puerto Rico reported that in 2008, federal agents confiscated 14,000 stolen birth certificates in an investigation that resulted in five convictions. The spokesman also reported that in previous cases, drug addicts would sell their birth certificates for $25; which would be sent to the U.S. and sold for as much as $5,000.3

The high demand for Puerto Rican birth certificates can be attributed to the Jones-Shafroth Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. They have also provided a great cover for Hispanic immigrants because of how similar their birth names can be.4

Historically, the Puerto Rican government did not have the same regulations as the U.S. in relation to document protection, specifically in the case of birth certificates. On average, Puerto Rican citizens could receive 20 official copies of their birth certificates in their lifetime.2 A staggering statistic indicated in 2008, 45,622 children were born in Puerto Rico. In that same year, 860,000 certified copies of birth certificates were issued by the Office of Vital Statistics.5 Many of these official copies were used to enroll into school, join sports leagues and church groups.

In 2010, The Associated Press reported that thousands of Puerto Ricans had become victims of identity fraud in part because the government, schools, and other institutions did not properly secure copies of the birth certificates;4 thus making them easily accessible to individuals looking to make a profit by selling the official copies on the black market.

Identity brokers have created a lucrative business on the black market, with illegal immigrants reportedly paying thousands of dollars for breeder documents and to assist in guiding them through the process of obtaining additional documents to establish their new identities. Brokers have created networks to work around the system to create these identities, researching to find the most lenient issuing centers, bribing DMV clerks, employing the assistance of corrupt notaries and lawyers, and arranging for other people to take written and road tests to acquire a driver’s license if the person is unable to drive.6

Puerto Rico’s Change in Policy

In December 2009, in an effort to fight the brokering of birth certificates, the Puerto Rican government passed a law that took effect in September of 2010 voiding all birth certificates issued before that year; dramatically reducing the value of the birth certificates circulating on the black market at the time. The new law required all Puerto Rican citizens living on the island and the estimated 1.35 million citizens living in the U.S. to file for a new birth certificate that included enhanced security features such as special seals and prints on counterfeit proof paper put in place to stop counterfeiters from trying to recreate the documents.7 Additionally, the government prohibited institutions from keeping copies of the new birth certificates in an effort to limit the number of unsecure copies available to potential thieves.

Though the process initiated by the Puerto Rican government wasn’t without its share of difficulties, as it left many citizens living in the U.S. and deployed overseas in the U.S. military scrambling to get their paperwork for new birth certificates processed by the deadline. The steps taken were necessary as the government realized that something had to be done to try and put an end to this thriving illegal industry.

The overhaul of the entire birth certificate process may not be able to completely stop the buying and selling of these documents on the black market, but it has made it more difficult to acquire and/or counterfeit them for profit. The new security measures and features associated with the birth certificates will give government agencies a better opportunity to recognize counterfeit copies and potentially save thousands of victims from having their lives ruined.


  1. Mortensen, Ronald (2009, June). Illegal, but not Undocumented: Identity Theft, Document Fraud, and Illegal Employment. Center for Immigration Studies: Backgrounder.
  2. Gonzalez, Juan (2010, March 12). Old Puerto Rico Birth Certificates to be Scrapped due to Identity Theft Scams, Leaving Many in Limbo. NY Daily News.
  3. Moore, Martha (2010, June 14). Puerto Rico Scraps Birth Records. US A TODAY.
  4. Coto, Danica (2012, January 11). Arrest in Puerto Rico, US in Document Fraud Case. Associated Press.
  5. Dwyer, Devin (2010, April 20). Born Again? Puerto Rico’s Birth Certificate Fiasco. ABC News.
  6. Dinerstein, Marti (2002, April). America’s Identity Crisis: Document Fraud is Pervasive and Pernicious. Center for Immigration Studies: Backgrounder.
  7. Coto, Danica (2010, July 1). Puerto Ricans Targeted in Massive ID Theft Schemes. Associated Press.