In Latin America, New Fraud Models Emerge To Combat DNA Tests
In the early days of age fraud in the Dominican Republic, it wasn't difficult for a player to shave a few years off his age. It was often as simple as changing the date on the birth certificate by hand. There were no investigations at the time, and for bonuses of a few thousand dollars, many teams didn't care much about the risk.
Since then, age and identity fraud have become a big business and a significant issue for baseball, not just in the Dominican Republic but throughout Latin America. With more money and more people trying to get a piece of it, the fraud schemes have become increasingly sophisticated.
Major League Baseball now uses stricter checks on players' ages and identities, making simple document manipulation easier to detect. So players started switching entire identities to take years off their lives.
MLB made the next move in the cat-and-mouse game by instituting DNA testing for international signees in select cases, the first notable example coming in 2009 with Miguel Sano. Rest assured, however, that even more sophisticated fraud schemes are in the offing.
Cheating The Test
Once age fraud moved past elementary techniques, a more complex approach involved a player shifting his identity completely to that of a younger male and assuming a role in his new family. The player had to memorize his new life story and background information, but the school and hospital records all matched because he had traded an entire identity rather than just altering his own documents. Sometimes school officials and neighbors were paid off as well. Some Dominican players were even shipped out of the country to assume an identity within a Venezuelan family to appear younger. It was fraud, but it was well designed and a lot of people profited from the deception.
One of the most noted fraud cases involved Nationals shortstop Carlos Alvarez, who signed for $1.4 million in 2006 as Esmailyn Gonzalez with an age four years younger than what his real date of birth gave him. Two years later the Padres signed a player known as Alvaro Aristy, who grabbed a $1 million bonus before MLB discovered he was really Jorge Leandro Guzman and had sliced two and a half years off his age.
Some players still try similar schemes, but DNA testing creates a major impediment to their success. Had MLB used DNA testing at the time, the signings of players like Alvarez and Guzman likely would not have been approved because their DNA would not have matched the DNA of their fake families.
Those whose signings are held up by DNA tests could still try to explain away the results. If the player's DNA matches the mother but not the father, for example, the mother could simply say the player has a different biological father than he believed. Issues with a country's record-keeping system also can be used as excuses, but a DNA mismatch with an immediate family member is a glaring red flag.
According to international sources familiar with the process, however, trainers and others are developing even more elaborate schemes to beat the DNA test—a Version 2.0 of the Alvarez/Guzman model of deception. Instead of swapping the identity of only the player, now the swap involves multiple family members, with the mothers as the most crucial components.
So in addition to the player switching identities with a younger male, the mother of the player and the mother of the younger male also swap identities. When the player and his mother take a DNA test, they will match, of course. If the father is estranged from the mother and they were never married, the fathers don't even need to swap identities because the player already has his mother's surname. The family that gives up its identity is compensated for its cooperation. The families involved in these switches are likely to come from poor backgrounds, international sources said, in part because a player with a parent in a professional occupation like a banker, lawyer or professor would have to deal with more logistical issues swapping identities.
So what happens when MLB or the U.S. Consulate checks on the identity of the player now? The DNA of the mother (and the father, if he's included in the scheme) will match the player. The papers will all check out. Unless investigators can pierce the web of deception through other means, the player will pass and have his contract approved.
If necessary, the scam can be expanded into more complicated scenarios. Identities of fathers, brothers and sisters can be swapped as well. Doing so adds layers of complexity and makes it harder to keep the stories together, so sources say it's easier to present the player as an only child using this method, but they say it can be done.
"People adapt to the system," said one source familiar with this type of fraud. "You take a whole family and trade papers so DNA becomes useless."
Because identification cards include photos, international and team sources say those records can be altered with payments to the appropriate parties. The government, those familiar with fraud say, will likely back the player's story because it doesn't want to look like it is vulnerable to fraud. At this level of deception, it's not just one person involved, but many people representing a variety of interests.
Sources say that MLB is aware of this type of fraud, though MLB officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story. It clearly ramps up the difficulty of detection, and officials may have to end up running DNA tests on several family members—not just parents but brothers and sisters, possibly even grandparents.
"The investigation would still hold some clout in terms of how long ago (the families) did this," said one international scouting director. "I would have some level of faith in the investigator to at least come up with a paper trail and a history through the interview process of going through the town, hospital records, baptismal records, all that stuff, with the hope that something would trip up along the way, or that they would have enough doubt to call it inconclusive and put the ball in the court of the teams."
For the field work to uncover this type of fraud, however, the investigators need to know where to go to trace a player's real roots. It helps if someone speaks up, but it's difficult to find an informant for every case. Major league teams signed about 400 players last year in the Dominican Republic alone. If the fraud is well executed and the papers all match, it's hard to catch.
The word in Latin America is that players have already used this scheme to pass MLB's investigations, and at least one high-profile player may have manipulated his age and identity through this method to try to sneak through the signing process this year.
Under the old methods of fraud, a player or his trainer could alter the player's paperwork on their own. With the increased complexity of swapping not just the player's identity but sometimes that of entire families, the people involved are not simply baseball trainers. These people are well connected and have the financial means (or backing) to pay people off.
MLB has invested a lot of resources in improving its ability to detect and punish fraud on the international market, but its job isn't getting any easier.