Something spooked the man selling fake IDs outside Los Primos restaurant in Chamblee. He told his customer — a police informant, it turns out — to meet him down the street at a gas station on Buford Highway because the area was too “hot.” There, he sold the informant a fake green card and a fake Social Security card. Police turned on the blue lights and busted him.

Miguel Gonzalez Cadena, 32, an illegal Mexican immigrant, had been deported five times before and was arrested last year, federal officials say. He won’t tell police whom he works for, but he’s been charged with forgery and is now serving a two-year federal sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States, according to ICE officials.

Catching the guy selling documents on the street is the first step for police, state investigators and federal immigration officers who are trying to bust fake ID rings. For the past 2 1/2 years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has run a task force in Atlanta targeting fake IDs and those who seek to fraudulently obtain visas. It’s one of several such task forces in the country. “It’s a significant problem. It is really the first step in individuals’ attempts to legitimize themselves here and gain employment,” said Ken Smith, Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta office of ICE. “The bigger question is, if we don’t know who these people are, what are they going to use these documents to do? Could they gain employment at a critical infrastructure, like an airport?”

False identification also creates more paperwork for federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service when more than one person uses the same Social Security number. The federal agencies try to track down the real owner of the number. A citizen may find that someone has used his or her Social Security number in a fake ID to get a job.

The Atlanta fake ID task force has opened more than 100 investigations; brought five federal cases; and federally indicted about 40 people. Those efforts dovetail with Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Georgia Secure ID initiative, in which the state has devoted money for investigators at driver’s license offices and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to rout out fake identification. “The state of Georgia is one of the better we’ve seen in attacking this,” said Brock Nicholson, Deputy Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The governor wants to get this under control.”

Wednesday in federal court for the northern district of Georgia, five Mexican men who manufactured and sold fake Social Security cards, green cards, work permits and driver’s licenses received federal sentences ranging from two and a half years to six years. They worked out of the Twelve Oaks apartment complex in Marietta and sold documents for about $100 each to customers outside a coin laundry in Smyrna.

As Georgia has devoted more resources to combating fake IDs, the counterfeiters move their operations around, making it harder to catch. One investigator also has noticed a decreased willingness by counterfeiters to manufacture a fake Georgia driver’s license, although they’ll make ones from other states. They tell customers police are more likely to spot a fake Georgia driver’s license.

The fake ID rings range from one-man shows to labs that have an owner and several “lieutenants” who mark out shopping centers and other places for sales. Several runners work for each lieutenant, selling the documents on the street, said Wilson Cabrera, a criminal investigator with the Governor’s office of Consumer Affairs. The lieutenants have to pay a weekly fee to sell documents. “It’s the same thing like the drug dealers. They operate the same way. You have your neighborhood and you supply for that and no one else can come into that,” Cabrera said.

The quality of fake documents ranges from cards with a photo that’s obviously been cut and pasted, to green cards and Georgia driver’s licenses on sturdy plastic with good photos, seals and even holograms, investigators said. Of course the best documents are real ones, where an illegal immigrant can simply assume someone’s identity, ICE agents said.

Profit for counterfeiters varies. In one document lab, ICE investigators found $30,000 in a shoe box. The owner of a lab may also own a legitimate printing business, investigators said. Fake documents can be a nice side income. “Depending on how aggressive you are and how hard you want to work, the sky’s the limit,” Nicholson said.