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The Magic Number

Illegal immigrants are using stolen identities to work. But whose are they?

When she called the number for Wendy's corporate headquarters, she was directed through a maddening automated maze of number-pressing until she got to a place to leave a voice-mail message. She did, and never got a call back. Now she begins dialing individual Wendy's locations off the list, beginning with the one closest to her house. She asks to speak to Maria. Is Maria working? Hello, I need to talk to Maria. The managers who answer the phone always seem to reply, "Which Maria?"

"Maria Tinajero."

"No, no one by that name."

There are ten Wendy's stores in Denver, and a total of 34 in the metro area.

On her tenth call, Maria gets a lead.

"This is Mary," says the voice.

"Maria Tinajero?"

"Yes," says the voice. Even above the lunch-rush background noise, it's clear that her English is good.

"Is this Maria or Mary?" Maria asks.

The voice sounds distracted.

"Did you apply for a job?" Maria continues.

The voice hangs up.

Maria grabs Brian and runs to her car. The phone number is for the Wendy's store at 515 South Broadway, about a fifteen-minute drive away. Maria wants to confront her imposter, tell her to give up her number. But as she drives, she grows nervous. Will the woman deny it? Will she run? Is she running right now?

The Wendy's store looks like any other Wendy's store. Maria takes Brian's hand and enters. Behind the counter, a woman turns around. She is Latina and about Maria's age. Her name tag reads "Mary Tinajero, manager."

Maria's jaw drops. She knows this woman; she's her cousin.

They speak to each other in a flurry of Spanish. It's a fluke, a bizarre coincidence. Her cousin couldn't be the imposter. She's worked for Wendy's for over ten years and, more important, she's a U.S. citizen. Maria knows this because both their families moved from Mexico the same year.

They take a seat at a table in the lobby and talk while Brian eats a vanilla Frosty.

"Is she using your middle name, too?" Mary asks.

"Yes," Maria answers. "Estrella, too." She relays the whole story -- Jesús, the medicine, the hospital, the IRS.

Mary rolls her eyes sympathetically. "Well, corporate should be able to know that stuff." She opens a three-ring binder and finds the phone number for the local Wendy's human resources director.

"See, what's happening right now is that no restaurant will hire illegal people," Mary explains. "So the people who make the papers know they can't just make up fake numbers anymore. They have to use real numbers, like yours." This is why Mary now shreds all of her own personal papers and never carries her Social Security card.

Mary tells the human resources director about her cousin's problem. They decide that Maria should photocopy her driver's license and let the company deal with the phony employee.

A few days later, Mary reports that they located the fake Maria Tinajero working at a Wendy's in Littleton. The manager told the worker there had been a complaint, and asked her to bring in documents proving her identity.

"But she went home and never showed back up for work," Mary says.

When you live under a borrowed identity, it's easy to disappear.

In 2005, Detective Castro arrested a woman working at a north Denver furniture factory under the name Yvonne Lucero ("Stop, Thief!," March 10, 2005). The real Lucero had grown up in Denver but was living in Albuquerque when she got a letter from the IRS demanding $2,000 in back taxes. It took Castro more than a month to obtain a probable-cause warrant for Jane Doe on two counts of forgery and one count of criminal impersonation. But even after the detective took "Lucero" into custody, Castro was still uncertain of the impersonator's true identity.

The police had discovered a Mexican voter-registration card issued to Guillermina Zavala, but when Castro checked out the resident alien number listed in the company's documents under the Zavala name, the digits didn't match ICE records. In fact, the numbers associated with the resident alien card were actually registered to a male. Castro still didn't know who the woman was when she made bail. She never returned for her second advisement hearing at a Denver courtroom, where a clerk read "Guillermina Zavala, Guillermina Zavala" into the open air.

The woman turned up in Arizona last year, working under another fraudulent name, Castro says. Not knowing she was wanted in Colorado on 26 counts of forgery and identity theft, Arizona police released her on bond.

"So I have to go back to the district attorney, get an at-large warrant, and meanwhile she's gone. Again. It's a never-ending battle," Castro laments. "Now we've got another victim out there."

If employee's previous grant of work has expired, provide the information below for the document that establishes current employment eligibility.

Sitting at her kitchen table in early February, Maria looks through the help-wanted ads. She no longer expects to meet her imposter, though she would like to. She's afraid that any future encounter will be through IRS paperwork. "Maybe she's applying for another job with the fake documents of my information," she says. "And then it's going to happen again."

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