Face Off

A Little Saigon identity-theft ring pounded OC businesses until one cop saw a tear in its veil of secrecy

"It was unfortunate for Tran that we randomly picked one day to do surveillance on her, and she led us to so much evidence," Tucker says. "We were able to destroy this cell . . . but, to be honest, I don't think we'll ever know her true identity."

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Prosecutors locked up crew members Dat The Pham for 13 years; Son Kim Do, six years; Loc Phuc Nguyen, six years; Trac Dinh Hoang, six years; Loan Thi Kim Nguyen, 64 months; Vanni Dang, 40 months; Xuan My Trang, three years; Harold Nguyen, three years; Thong Minh Tran, three years; Julie Huynh Nguyen, 32 months; Nghia Huu Le, two years; Trung Ngo, 16 months; Khoi Dinh Do, 16 months; Nhan Bao Dinh, 16 months; Ngoc Xuan Pham, one year; Veronica Ruiz Caro, six months; Tani Mohamed, 190 days; Andy Hong Tran, 190 days; Chi Bich Ton, 30 days; Huy Thanh Vu, 30 days.

Huy Quach, Danny Khalil and Hai Ngoc Nguyen are awaiting trial. Vinh To and Toan Tran are fugitives. Phil Nguyen, the career criminal, awaits sentencing on Aug. 31.

And Tina Tran?

The DA's office charged her with 105 felonies. Before they could try her, she slipped from their grasp in December 2005—but not to freedom. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed her from the Orange County Jail.

Tran had been multi-tasking. Federal agents conducting "Operation Newlywed Game" arrested her for her role in a massive fake-marriage scheme to illegally bring Chinese or Vietnamese nationals to the United States. According to court records, Tran participated in 70 sham marriages and filed more than 30 bogus visa applications on behalf of fake spouses or family members. Agents say she charged up to $60,000 for each fake marriage.

A year ago, Tran pleaded guilty to three federal charges and is awaiting sentencing by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter. She faces a maximum of 25 years in prison and a $750,000 fine for the marriage scam.

"We'll wait our turn for her," local prosecutor Henderson says.

Tucker, who declined to be photographed for this story to protect his undercover work, is back to work on other white-collar scams. He says the best way to thwart ID thefts is for businesses to use biometric safeguards. But until that happens, he promises to continue the hunt.

"I know there are other rings out there right now," he says. "They think cops are stupid. But we're like the Mossad [the Israeli secret police]: They won't know we're close until it's too late."

To view a slide show of mugshots of those in Tran's crew, click here.

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