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Originally published Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 9:27 PM

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DOL tightens rules for new driver's licenses to stop fraud

One of only three states where illegal immigrants can still obtain driver's licenses, Washington is moving to tighten the rules.

Seattle Times staff reporter

One of only three states where illegal immigrants can still obtain driver's licenses, Washington is moving to tighten the rules.

Beginning Monday, the state Department of Licensing (DOL) will require people without a Social Security number who are seeking a new driver's license to provide proof they actually live here.

While a few in that category may be U.S. citizens and legal residents, most are illegal immigrants.

Washington is alone with New Mexico and Utah in issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. And officials say an alarming number of out-of-state residents without Social Security numbers have been obtaining licenses here in recent years — this year more than double what it was three years ago.

Officials believe many of these licenses are fraudulent, issued to people who aren't moving here but who say they are because they can no longer renew their driver's licenses in the states they live in.

"People are coming in with licenses about to expire from another state," said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the department. "This is putting pressure on our services. ... "

A driver's license is the most basic form of identification, used for everything from applying for government services to boarding domestic flights.

The licensing department issues around 1 million first-time and renewed licenses a year.

State law requires those who apply for a driver's license or state ID card to be a resident of Washington. They must also provide a Social Security number.

Three years ago, DOL began requiring everyone to provide proof of residency, after officials uncovered scams in which individuals were charging illegal immigrants a fee to help them obtain Washington driver's licenses.

But the requirement was a hassle for so many people that the agency dropped it earlier this year.

Now it is reinstating the proof-of-residency requirement, but only for those without a Social Security number.

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"We believe there's fraud going on," Benfield said. "We are determined to eliminate that by putting more scrutiny on the folks who are signing this declaration."

In recent years, the number of states issuing licenses to illegal immigrants has dwindled. While Washington and New Mexico continue to offer them, Utah issues licenses to illegal immigrants only to drive, not for identification.

At the same time, Washington saw a rise in the number of people who had to sign Social Security declarations.

Licensing officials see the abnormally high declaration rates — 65 percent of all applicants from North Carolina, for example; 58 percent for those coming from Michigan — as a sign that people are obtaining licenses here then returning to their lives in other states.

Before the state eliminated the proof-of-residency requirement at the start of the year, people could meet it with a range of documents including copies of utility bills, cellphones bills and auto-insurance cards.

Benfield said they will no longer accept as proof certain kinds of documents, such as cellphone or cable bills. Those bent on deceit, he said, usually cancel those accounts as soon as they are issued their licenses.

The documents accepted will be copied and scrutinized by department technicians — not counter staff — to ensure validity, he said.

Applicants will get non-photo, temporary authorization to drive, with a license issued only after the documents have been validated.

The ability to change state law to require proof of legal status to get a driver's license rests with the Legislature, where past efforts have stalled.

Washingtonians have also not been inclined to change the law. This year, for the fifth year in a row, an initiative to deny licenses to illegal immigrants failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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