Asian Americans in Texas are upset after officials announced this week that thousands of Asians across the state could be affected by identity theft orchestrated through a website that used personal information to answer security questions.
The state’s Department of Public Safety unknowingly sent an estimated 3,000 driver’s licenses to an organized crime group targeting Asians in the state, DPS Director Steve McCraw told a Texas House committee Monday. The incident, which is currently under investigation, was discovered in December, McCraw said, and the department began notifying victims through the mail this week.
With no months of warning before the incident, Asian Americans say they are disappointed with the DPS’s response and feel left in the dark.
“It really shows that our state government doesn’t see us and doesn’t care about us and doesn’t prioritize our welfare,” Lily Trieu, executive director of Asian Texans for Justice, told NBC News.
DPS did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
McCraw did not reveal the name of the organization, but did tell the Texas House Appropriations Committee that a New York-based Chinese organized crime group had obtained the licenses with Asian names to sell to undocumented immigrants, mostly Chinese, in hoping to pose as a victim. He added that with the licenses, impersonators could receive additional supporting identification documents with their own photos.
Using victims’ personal information obtained from the “dark web” or sites hidden by traditional surface browsers, the group was able to answer security questions on the state’s Texas.gov website, McCraw said. The questions have since been removed from the website.
“The identity questions could be something you shared with a credit card company, or something like your mother’s maiden name, your first vehicle you ever owned, your favorite sport,” McCraw said. “[They] Use these questions to get and buy a replacement driver’s license for Asian-sounding names. And have a replacement driving license sent from there to an address of your choice.”
When asked by the committee’s vice chair, Mary Gonzalez, McCraw said the victims’ identification details could be used in the months they weren’t notified. He said DPS did not immediately alert victims because the department “decided to conduct a thorough investigation” before releasing the information.
McCraw also said he didn’t see it as a “violation” and said the criminal organization did not hack into the website. Rather, the group discovered a “vulnerability” and exploited it, he said.
Brittney Booth Paylor, director of media and government relations at the Texas Department of Information Resources, echoed McCraw’s language in a statement provided to NBC News.
“This is a fraudulent criminal activity based on identity theft unrelated to government systems, not a cybersecurity incident. No government systems, including the government portal, were hacked or breached,” Paylor wrote in the statement.
Paylor declined to comment further on whether personal information was stolen during the identity theft.
Jeoff Williams, deputy director of law enforcement at DPS, told the committee the identity theft was discovered after a credit card company was notified of a fraudulent charge by Texas.gov. Changes were made to the site’s credit card transaction process after the discovery, he said.
One of those changes, he said, is to “put the zip code of the bill and the CVV, or three-digit code, on the back of the card at the time of the transaction. That feature wasn’t enabled,” Williams said.
Debbie Chen, program director for civic engagement at the Asian-American civil rights organization OCA Greater Houston, said many in the Asian community are now questioning their safety in Texas.
“Three years into the pandemic, people have truly experienced anti-Asian hatred. People felt like a scapegoat. And then you have a government agency that knew about it months in advance and didn’t do anything,” Chen said. “It adds to that fear, ‘Are you considering us equal citizens compared to everyone else?'”
Both Trieu and Chen called the state government’s delay in notifying victims unacceptable, regardless of a criminal investigation.
“Your identity can literally affect everything in your life. It could have resulted in people having their wages garnished, it could have resulted in them being prosecuted because someone used their identity for criminal activities,” Chen said. “One would think that some resources would have been expended, even when it came to calling people one-by-one.”
Trieu said her organization is asking DPS to contact all victims and also provide language support. An estimated one-third of Asian Texans have limited English proficiency, defined as difficulty communicating effectively in English, according to civic engagement and data from the nonprofit AAPI Data.
Advocates also called for an explanation and specific information on the scale and scope of the problem. So far, information is scarce and some organizations and activists only found out about the ordeal because they were preparing for the committee meeting, Trieu said. In addition, Trieu said a credit monitoring tool will be made available to victims.
“Now that their personal information is compromised, it could have long-term financial implications,” Trieu said. “The state has been negligent, the state should be responsible for protecting people when monitoring their credit reports.”
McCraw informed the committee that the department would issue replacement licenses free of charge. And a spokesman for DPS told the Dallas Morning News that the information will be translated into more languages, but didn’t give a timeline.