From late 2007 until March 2011, if you were an identity thief or credit card fraud artist in need of a fake ID, your best bet was “Celtic’s Novelty I.D. Service.” From its base in Las Vegas, the online storefront manufactured driver’s licenses for 13 states and shipped them to buyers around the world. No questions asked.

With a reputation for quality and the fastest turnaround in the industry, Celtic was a no-nonsense player in a global underworld benighted by drama and infighting. On the Russian-led criminal forum, his primary home, he accumulated scores of glowing reviews from satisfied customers. “You can trust him,” wrote Oink Oink. “This guy doesn’t fuck around. Great shit, great communication and bends over backwards to help you out.”

“I agree Celtic is great,” wrote XXXSimone. “I placed an order, instantly he sent the order out did not bullshit around.”

A customer named Temp agreed. “Strongly recommended! Fast shipment, and very good discounts!”

Today Billy “Oink-Oink” Steffey, Maceo “XXXSimone” Boozer III, and Alexander “Temp” Kostyukov might not be so generous with their praise, as they await a November trial in the largest identity theft prosecution in U.S. history. Their mistake? In addition to being a talented ID forger, Celtic was a Secret Service agent.

The government calls it “Operation Open Market,” a four-year investigation resulting, so far, in four federal grand jury indictments against 55 defendants in 10 countries, facing a cumulative millennium of prison time. What many of those alleged scammers, carders, thieves, and racketeers have in common is one simple mistake: They bought their high-quality fake IDs from a sophisticated driver’s license counterfeiting factory secretly established, owned, and operated by the United States Secret Service.

The Secret Service announced Operation Open Market in a press release in March of last year when the first set of indictments dropped. But the agency hasn’t publicly disclosed how it made the busts. That story is told in internal agency documents seen by WIRED, correlated with archival posts from and court records. It’s the story of how the Secret Service, in an operation as ironic as it was bold, stole the identity of a low-ranking member of the underground in May 2007, and, with top-level Justice Department approval, used it for years afterward to produce and sell some of the best fake IDs available anywhere.

In the process, the agency built dossiers on identity thieves around the world and discovered the underground’s extensive use of the online payment service Liberty Reserve, which spawned a parallel Secret Service and Treasury Department investigation with its own round of arrests in May.

“By selling the counterfeit identifications, it allowed the UCA [undercover agent] potential to identify individuals operating on the carding portals and develop an understanding of the internal workings of the organization,” reads an August 2011 memorandum produced by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which supported the Secret Service in the operation.

“The prosecutorial strategy centers on disrupting and dismantling the organization while at the same time acting as a deterrent to similar organizations that may be operating under the belief that because they are outside U.S. territory they are safe from U.S. law enforcement,” the report continues, adding that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was personally briefed on the operation.

The Secret Service, DHS, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada declined to discuss the investigation.

Read More