You may now switch the bride

On a sunny spring day almost 15 years ago, Stephanie Diaz and her fiancé decided it was time to get married. They drove from the Bronx to the New York City clerk’s office, a high-ceilinged marble hall in downtown Manhattan, to get a license to wed.

But when the couple handed in their application, they were met with a rude surprise. The clerk refused to grant them a marriage license because her records showed that Diaz already had a husband. She had supposedly tied the knot a year earlier with a man named Lorenzo Guevara – a man neither Diaz nor her fiancé had even heard of.

“We both looked astonished at each other,” said Diaz, who had never been married. The clerk “explained to me that there was nothing she could do, and right then and there is when I started to cry.”

Stephanie Diaz, here with her daughter Megan Rosa, fought for 10 years for her right to marry after an identity thief took it away. Photo: Sasha Chavkin

Diaz was a victim of an audacious form of fraud that has altered the life course of hundreds of people in New York City and likely affected more nationwide. In the scam, unsuspecting victims of identity theft are impersonated at the altar. The thief or an associate will assume the victim’s identity, and for a fee, will get married in the victim’s name to an undocumented immigrant who is seeking United States citizenship.

The New York City Clerk’s office has rejected at least 1,769 marriage applications since October 2006 because prospective brides or grooms had prior marriages on record. In that time, 249 brides and grooms have appealed on the grounds that the marriages were fraudulent.

Clifford Holmes, a civil servant, discovered he was married three times, to women named Ramnattie Busgith, Dutrice Venthronia Baker and Ayana Muhammad. Lisa Betancourt of Queens turned out to be married to men from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Theresa Ramirez, listed on her 1995 marriage license as a travel agent from Queens, was in fact a full-time caretaker for her quadriplegic father in the Bronx.

“They took one of these transcripts out of the computer and they said he was married not once but twice,” recalled Virginia Bond, whose fiancé Willie Nelson Portis was denied a marriage license in 2009. “I’m looking at him and he’s like, ‘That’s not true!”

Most city and county clerks let such oddities slide when couples who wish to get married apply for a license. The transaction relies upon trust: the bride and groom show their IDs, pledge that they are not already married, and are promptly issued a license.

Chicago, Los Angeles and New York all add another step. They run the names of prospective brides and grooms against a database of people already married by the city or county. If prior marriages turn up, the couple is denied on the spot. LA and Chicago county clerks say cases of verified phony marriages are few and far between. But in New York, the problem has gotten so out of hand that the City Clerk has set up a special unit just to handle identity theft claims.

Patrick Synmoie, the general counsel for the New York City Clerk, assists the would-be brides and grooms who discover to their shock that they have previously been wed. A lean, deliberative man with black-rimmed glasses, suspenders and an immaculate purple-and-white bowtie, he is the frontline responder to couples suddenly denied the right to get married.

“We’ve seen people come in and the bride and the groom are both upset, the bride starts crying because all their relatives are coming from out of town, they’ve rented this hall, and so on,” Synmoie said. “There are real implications for this.”

The scam is particularly insidious, Synmoie points out, because there are few red flags that would alert someone to a change in their marital status, the way an unexpected credit card transaction might. Across America, an unknown number of people who think they are single are in fact legally wed — and entirely unaware they’re hitched.

“If you think about it,” said Synmoie in his slow, contemplative voice, “how would you know you’re married?”

For those willing to investigate, clues are plentiful. Stephanie Diaz was a lifelong resident of the Bronx, yet she had been getting calls from creditors claiming that she was racking up debt at furniture stores in New Jersey. When the clerk told her that she was already officially married, she immediately suspected that it was related to the identity theft.

Diaz, at the time a mother of two, tackled the problem on her own. She went to the city Bureau of Vital Statistics, where she learned that someone had recently picked up a birth certificate in her name. Another city agency showed Diaz her marriage certificate – a sloppy forgery that misstated her father’s birthplace and claimed she was a resident of “Bronx, New Jersey.”

“You also see during the signature where she looked like she was going to sign her real name, and then she scratched and went and did the ‘S,'” Diaz recalled.

But when she tried to get the marriage stricken from her record, she hit an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy. The clerk deflected her calls and eventually told her that the office couldn’t negate the marriage without records from the police showing that she was a victim of identity theft. “I was given the runaround over and over and over again,” Diaz said.

So Diaz turned to the police. NYPD detectives tracked the fraud to a woman in New Jersey, and arrested the fake “Stephanie Diaz” after convincing her to cross the Hudson River into New York. She held a valid New Jersey driver’s license, a social security card and health insurance, all in Stephanie Diaz’s name.

The woman confessed that she had bought Diaz’s personal information from a co-worker in a bar where she worked off the books, the detectives told Diaz. She had then collected a fee from an undocumented immigrant, Lorenzo Guevara, to marry him under Diaz’s identity. It turned out that the impersonator had come from the Dominican Republic and was also in the country illegally.

But Diaz would have to press charges in New Jersey, and before she could her doppelganger disappeared. Diaz gave up on trying to persuade the city clerk to renounce the false marriage. She also ran into difficulties with her real fiancé, which proved to be equally insurmountable. Two years after their failed attempt at a wedding, the couple split up, leaving Diaz to care for a family that had grown to three children.

She had never gotten married at all.

There is a reason that New York City is strict about issuing marriage licenses. The city also faces marriage fraud of a more traditional sort: United States citizens who agree, for a fee, to marry an immigrant seeking a green card. These scammers often marry multiple immigrants for money, earning them a nickname among the clerk’s staff: “career brides” and “career grooms.”

In one notorious case in 2003, City Clerk Victor Robles identified a Manhattan woman who had applied for 27 marriage licenses over two decades. Since then, the clerk’s office has required all applicants for a marriage license to undergo a records search dating back 10 years, as opposed to only one year of records at the time Diaz applied. That has allowed the clerk to weed out repeat brides and grooms before they are issued a license — and also snared even more unwitting victims of identity theft.

Until a few years ago, unwilling brides like Diaz had no way to override their fraudulent marriages other than a costly legal proceeding against the city. Synmoie routinely witnessed the injustice. “We saw ordinary working-class citizens of New York who were stuck with this problem,” said Synmoie, who emigrated from Jamaica as a child and then sought out a job in government. “If you couldn’t afford a lawyer, then effectively you were being denied the right to get married.”

So in 2006, he joined up with colleagues at the clerk’s office and two other city agencies to set up a special program to hear appeals of marriage rejections. Since then, 249 brides and grooms have appealed on the grounds that the marriages were fraudulent.

The responsibility to provide evidence falls on the victim, who for a $25 fee can fill out an appeal form. The clerk mails them a petition to invalidate their previous marriage, which they must return with evidence, such as proof of residence or handwriting samples, demonstrating that the old marriage is false. The clerk passes on the packet to an administrative law judge to provide an independent recommendation as to whether the applicant should be allowed to get married.

The New York City Clerk’s records show that among 249 appeals of marriage rejections, 61 have been granted and 10 have been denied. More than two thirds of appeals remain unresolved – suggesting that even the current system is leading many people who claim to be fraud victims to give up.

But the real Stephanie Diaz at last had an opening. By 2007, nearly a decade after she was rejected by the clerk, Diaz had met someone new. Though they weren’t ready to get married, she decided she had to clear her record once and for all. This time, Diaz was directed to Synmoie and told that he could help her to finally fix her problem.

Awkwardly, Synmoie, as attorney for the clerk’s office, is not only the point person for fraud victims seeking assistance – he is also the opposing party in their legal case. He often asks them – politely but point blank – whether they are aware of the practice of American citizens marrying immigrants for money.

“You can’t just walk in and say, ‘That wasn’t me,'” Synmoie said.

His interrogations left Diaz distraught. “I was explaining the situation to him and he was basically battling me, arguing with me,” Diaz said. “I was like ‘OK, well is he on my side or is he trying to show that I’m lying?'”

Synmoie said he explains his dual role to people who file appeals and has taken several steps to make the process easier. He provides sample answers to help people fill out the petitions to strike prior marriages, and sometimes even reviews their submissions to the judges. “We bend over backward,” he says, “to help them make their own case.”

Diaz spent nearly a year collecting the necessary documents. She gathered old leases to prove her residency and her father’s death certificate to prove his birthplace, and submitted samples of her handwriting for analysis.

Finally, in December of 2008, she had her hearing. Diaz argued that the evidence proved that she had been the victim of identity theft.

A week before Christmas, Administrative Law Judge Kara J. Miller released her conclusions.

“Respondent presented an impressively thorough and organized defense,” the judge wrote of Diaz. “Petitioner’s counsel” — Synmoie — “did not challenge respondent’s credibility or documentary evidence.”

Diaz had finally won. Her decade-old marriage license was recognized as a fraud and no longer stands in her way. She doesn’t have plans to get married anytime soon.

“I actually had tears in my eyes because I knew that I would actually be able to get married,” she said. “If I found someone to get married to.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story erroneously asserted that “the burden of proof is on the victim.” City rules state that “The City Clerk shall have the burden of demonstrating by a preponderance of the evidence that the applicant should not be granted a marriage license.”

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