MAYWOOD, Ill. (WLS) -- Hundreds of fake identification cards lined a table inside the Cook County Sheriff's Department in Maywood on Tuesday morning.
All of them were recovered last week as part of an undercover investigation into an unusual pattern of downtown retail thefts that has been emerging over the last nine months.
"The vast majority of them were from Venezuela," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Venezuelan migrants, Dart said, are being used by criminal organizations to engage in small retail thefts in exchange for fake social security cards, driver's licenses or green cards.
"Some of the people we have taken into custody have told us they were literally directed on what to steal. How much to steal that would get you this ID and that ID," Dart said.
Unlike several of the high-profile thefts at luxury stores that have captured the headlines, most of these thefts, the sheriff's department said, are of low-cost items. It was one such arrest earlier this month that led investigators to three men who they say were the ring leaders of this particular operation. Hand-written records of each fake ID sold and the price for which they were sold were also recovered.
"Most of the people we are talking to on this are people absolutely looking for this ID to get a job," Dart said.
Aneesha Gandhi, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, is among those helping migrants who qualify to fill out their asylum and work authorization requests. She said while there is no automatic penalty imposed by immigration authorities on those caught using fake documents, they could still face criminal consequences.
"We try to tell people that they shouldn't work unlawfully until they get their work permits, but we also understand that people are in dire situations. They're trying to protect their families, to protect themselves. We know that people work unlawfully. So does immigration court," Gandhi said.
Those arrested have been charged with manufacturing and selling fake IDs.
The Cook County sheriff, however, said they believe they represent just one of many criminal rings out there using migrants' desperation for profit.