Improved technology takes the fake ID game to a whole new level
He stood in checkout line 3 at Albertsons, hugging a 30-rack of Coors against his body, clutching a fifth of tequila in his free hand. Over and over in his head, he recited his address and date of birth, staring at the ground until he was forced to make eye contact with the cashier. He looked up and smiled, not moving again until the cashier asked to see his ID. Kyle, a junior business major, extended his sweaty palm which held his Indiana driver’s license and 30 seconds later he was outside the store silently celebrating his first successful alcohol purchase.
“Knowing all the possible ways it could go wrong, inevitably I was nervous,” Kyle said. “But all the worrying was for nothing because the cashier didn’t even question me. Either my ID looks that realistic or I just look 21, but regardless I’ve become a regular there and buying is never a problem for me anymore.”
More than 40 percent of underage college students who admit to using alcohol possess fake IDs, according to a 2016 study by the Research Society on Alcoholism. And with the technology to produce counterfeit licenses outpacing the technology to detect their validity, it is becoming increasingly easy for students to get away with this illicit practice.
In recent years, many retailers have implemented ID scanners for use during every alcohol transaction. These machines read either the barcode or magnetic stripe on the back of an ID and verify if the information matches with the DMV database. Due to a prominent history of students using fake IDs at Hooves Liquor, manager Rober Rashid has cracked down on store policies regarding alcohol sales.
“Every student that comes in has to recite their date of birth, height, eye color, hair color and I check if it matches the system,” Rashid said. “I believe our technology is successful 99.9 percent of time. But there are some counterfeit IDs out there that are just fantastically made, beautifully done, and sometimes even the machine can not verify those.”
Though ID scanners once seemed like a foolproof system, barcodes have become fairly easy to fabricate. Additionally, companies are now able to recreate the even more complex components of state-issued ID cards. Standard California licenses include images and information that is laser perforated, tactile and only visible under ultraviolet light. An ID technician with KingOfFakes claims they are able to replicate all of these security features to a tee.
“We have state-of-the-art technology for creating IDs, machines to the same caliber of what the government actually uses,” said Martin, who declined to allow use of his last name for legal protection. “All of our technicians are extremely skilled, able to produce IDs with all the necessary watermarks, laser images and microprints an ID comes with. Put our product side by side with a real ID and it’s nearly impossible to detect the difference.”
California IDs have had the same design since 2010 giving companies like KingOfFakes time to master recreating them, however that could soon change.* This year the Department of Motor Vehicles began offering new licenses, in compliance with the Real ID Act, a federal mandate that set standards for state identification. California’s Real ID features a new design and upgraded security elements.
“The new card features include a gold miner image on the right side of the card and California poppies on the bottom left. Under ultraviolet light you can see an image of the cardholder’s photo, birth date, Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower,” said the DMV in a January press release.
Even before the Real ID Act, students typically stayed away from using California state identification, opting for fakes from states with simpler designs like Ohio, Mississippi and Illinois. While authorities typically view this as an immediate red flag, minors tend to get away with it in college towns, due to a higher probability they are actually from out of state.
The 2016 study found that only 12.5 percent of students reported having fake IDs before entering college, but that number increased every semester, peaking at 39 percent during spring of junior year.
Another study, published in Addictive Behaviors in 2010, breaks down the methods which students use to obtain fake IDs. Most commonly, students use the real IDs of people over 21, with 45 percent using a friend’s and 24 percent using a relative’s.
Carly, a senior health sciences major, has observed this same trend at Chapman. She believes borrowing or buying another person’s legitimate ID is more popular because these documents are more likely to permit entry into bars — even if measurables like height, weight and the ID photo do not match.
“Bouncers are able to tell if an ID is fake right away. You almost have no chance getting in with one,” Carly said. “But if you’re using the real ID of somebody who looks even somewhat like you, you have a pretty good shot.”
While the success rates of this practice are purportedly greater, so are the legal consequences. In California, using another person’s ID is classified as identity theft and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony crime, depending on the case. Misdemeanors may be penalized by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a year in county jail, while felons face up to three years in state prison and $10,000 in fines.
To avoid this heightened risk, other students order custom fakes with their own photo and personal information, only altering their birth year to depict them as 21 or older. About 36 percent of students buy their own through an in-person or online retailer.
“I felt more comfortable ordering an ID with my own name and picture on it because all around it seemed less risky,” Kyle said. “I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s property, and especially didn’t want to take any chances with fraud.”
Although this practice does not constitute identity theft, students still face criminal charges if caught. Minors in possession of a fake ID may be charged with a misdemeanor, fined $250 and required to complete community service. Additional charges can be tacked on for intent to buy drugs or alcohol, and in some cases the offender’s license is suspended for a year.
Of course these penalties only apply when law enforcement is involved. After determining an ID is fake, many alcohol vendors decide to handle the situation independently. However, Orange Police Department Sgt. Phillip McMullin prefers they do the opposite.
“I wish they would call us every time it happens, but a lot of times they just refuse to sell the minor alcohol and send them on their way,” McMullin said. “The more we know something’s happening, it helps us allocate more resources to that problem. The more truth we have about an issue, the better we can help combat it.”
In order to stay in the know, OPD runs regular undercover operations, or “stings,” to restrain the use of fake IDs. McMullin explains there are three main approaches the department takes to ensure both customers and vendors are complying with alcohol laws.
“We’ll bring in people that are underage and have them ask someone who’s of age to buy alcohol for them. Or we’ll send them into bars, liquor stores and restaurants to try to buy alcohol themselves,” McMullin said. “Sometimes we’ll even have one of our undercover officers working as a bouncer to look for the fake IDs.”
Since the beginning of the year, OPD has made 98 arrests for fake ID violations. Their statistics do not differentiate between Chapman students and other citizens, but McMullin says the department gets frequent calls to the university area.
At colleges around the country, Greek Life has become notorious for promoting binge-drinking, and the 2016 study revealed fraternity and sorority membership is significantly correlated to fake ID ownership.
“After I joined a fraternity, I realized how important it was to have access to alcohol,” said James, a sophomore business major. “In our pledge class group message, I asked who else needed a fake and ended up ordering them for 12 of us. What could’ve cost us each $200 if we hadn’t done it together ended up only being $80 per person.”
Prices range depending on the site, but typically the more IDs purchased, the cheaper each one is. Popular websites used among Chapman students are IDGod, FakeYourDrank and IDInState. Jonathan, a junior computer science major, also took advantage of the discount to order IDs for himself and his friends, seizing an opportunity to profit through his services. After placing his first order with ease, Jonathan decided to start a business, using his friends to help spread his name and develop his clientele.
“After my friends refer someone to me, all they need to do is send me their information and I take care of the logistics for them,” Jonathan said. “Then I charge them for the cost of ID, plus shipping, then an additional service fee of $10 to $15 a person, and that’s how I make my money.”
Jonathan has placed around 12 group orders in the past two years, making more than $1,200. Rachel, a sophomore graphic design major and one of Jonathan’s previous clients, says ordering IDs through him is worth the extra cost.
“Throughout the whole process, he was super helpful and made it as easy as possible for us,” Rachel said. “He sent us a Google Form to fill out our information and even offered to take professional photos for the IDs. Then we just Venmoed him the money and three weeks later we had IDs.”
While students are able to transfer money within seconds on Venmo, buying IDs isn’t quite as simple. Most online websites now require payment via cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin. Using this method protects both the buyer and seller by keeping purchases anonymous.
“Just one bitcoin is worth over $6,000 so you have to do conversions to know how much you need, then you have to get a Bitcoin wallet which is basically just a QR code,” James said. “You can buy them online but I decided to go to a nearby Bitcoin ATM and do it. The machine is super high tech and even makes you scan your fingerprint.”
Further measures to disguise the illicit act are made during the shipment process.
IDs made by companies in China are subject to inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. To prevent triggering the interest of authorities, the IDs are usually hidden within other objects such as the soles of shoes, the lining of jewelry boxes or the back of picture frames.
“I ordered my ID to my dorm address and went to pick the package up from the mailroom. When I opened it, it seemed like there were hundreds of layers of tissue paper, then I finally got to the bottom of the box and there was a pair of thick fuzzy socks,” Carly said. “Initially I thought I was scammed, but then I felt around and found and ID in each one.”
Even with multifaceted attempts for deceit, Customs is catching on. Between May and August, Philadelphia CBP officers seized more than 500 fake IDs, according to a press release by the Department of Homeland Security. The officers turned the IDs over to law enforcement for further investigation, but not every case escalates to this degree. When Nick, a sophomore biology major, had his shipment uncovered by Customs, his IDs were destroyed, but still delivered.
“Throughout the shipment I was tracking the order and noticed it was stuck in the Long Beach Customs center for way longer than expected. I was getting nervous something happened to them, but then they finally arrived and I was beyond excited,” Nick said. “Then I opened the package only to find 12 IDs with multiple holes punched through them.”
Nick is not sure exactly what happened but took it as a warning from the government. His friends were upset they’d never get the IDs they paid for, but Nick refused to take the risk of reordering them.
State and local law enforcement are making heightened efforts to combat the use of fake IDs, but McMullin knows they won’t put an end to the problem anytime soon. His advice to students is to be smarter during nights out in order to keep themselves and the community safe.
“There’s been several times where people have tarnished or brought shame to the good name of Chapman University for doing something they shouldn’t be while intoxicated, and it’s not helping their cause in the community,” McMullin said. “The less illegal drinking that goes on, the less problems we have in Orange, and that makes it a safer place for everyone.”
*The DMV did not respond to multiple requests for comment.