GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - An ex-convict was in a bar when he got an offer: Would he sell his identity for $1,000?
Clifford Tillman agreed, and his birth certificate was used to get a U.S. passport for a Zimbabwe native in the Grand Rapids area. This willful deal seems like a different twist on identity fraud, but federal investigators say such schemes are not uncommon.
"It's very dangerous because the passport is probably one of the most important, visible identifications in the world. It's the gold standard," said Ed Moreno, director of domestic operations at the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.
"When some people are willing to sell their identity, it makes it a dangerous game. You're not sure who's going to end up getting it," he said.
Prosecutors charged Nehemiah Muzamhindo, 45, of Kentwood, Mich., with four crimes related to passports obtained by two fellow Zimbabwe nationals. At trial in December, Tillman testified that Muzamhindo acted like a broker and paid him $1,000 for his personal documents.
But Muzamhindo was convicted of only one charge, aiding a false statement on a passport application, and was sentenced to three years of probation yesterday in federal court in Grand Rapids.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim VerHey said obtaining a passport was "the whole focus of the crime," and Muzamhindo "did it for profit." But defense lawyer Anthony Greene said his client had a minimal role.
Under sentencing guidelines, Muzamhindo, who is a U.S. permanent resident, faced as much as six months in custody.
The man who used Tillman's identity to get a passport, Tichaona Machamire, was sentenced to four months in custody in January. Sam Mike Mutongerwa, another man who got a passport with someone else's identity, was placed on probation for six months in February.
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