Technology makes fake IDs look more real than ever

Joseph smiled at the bartender, asked for a beer and, when he heard the familiar request for an ID, pulled his Connecticut driver’s license from his wallet.

The 20-year-old had breezed through the drill dozens of times, but on this Friday night in April, it seemed to be taking too long. Then the bartender pulled a book from behind the counter and flipped to a picture of a Connecticut ID.

“That freaked me out,” said Joseph, who attends a university in the Northeast and is working in Fort Worth this summer. “I thought he was going to realize it was a fake and would throw me out.”

But a few minutes later, Joseph, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used, was sipping a beer. His nearly flawless ID, which he had designed on a computer and pasted together in about 30 minutes, had yet again passed the test.

Young people have used forged licenses as long as laws have prevented them from drinking. But what separates students such as Joseph from the generations of varsity counterfeiters before them is the deftness of their felonious work. Using computer technology widely available at universities, they’re able to make fake IDs so advanced that even veteran officers are duped.

“I don’t know where they’re getting them, but the quality is just amazing,” said Maj. Dexter Simpson of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “The only way we can catch them is to use digital scanners.

“If we, as law enforcement officials, cannot tell by sight alone, how can we expect bar owners to?”

A couple of weeks ago, Maj. Simpson was part of “Operation Fake-out,” the first of what officials hope will be regular checks using digital scanners, which read the bar codes on the backs of licenses.

During the nighttime operation in Deep Ellum, agents from the TABC, Dallas Police Department and Secret Service inspected the IDs that people presented as they entered bars and clubs. If a card was suspect, officers scanned it.

Twenty-two people, including one under 18, were arrested and spent the night in jail on charges of possessing either forged IDs or cards that didn’t belong to them – both Class C misdemeanors.

But by all indications, that’s peanuts compared with what Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger calls the “widespread” problem of fake-ID use.

On college campuses, students say, getting an ID can be as easy as walking down the hall to visit the resident computer nerd. Police officials at several local universities say they believe some print shops also sell the illegal cards.

Another source is the Internet, where dozens of Web sites offer a wide selection of state IDs, sometimes sold as “novelty cards.” Most of the pages instruct people to send a money order or cash – from $ 20 to more than $ 100 – to a post office box. When the money arrives, the sites’ operators claim, they’ll drop the card in the mail.

Lack of concern

However young people obtain the IDs, Mr. Vinger said, the biggest problem for law enforcement officials is the nonchalance of the students.

“The prevalent attitude is that there’s nothing wrong with making or using fake IDs,” said Mr. Vinger, who works in the DPS Austin office. “They have to realize that, bottom line, making IDs is forging government documents, even if the IDs are only going to be used to get alcohol.”

But that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.

In a typical weekend at Texas Christian University, campus police Detective Kelly Ham said, officers seize three or four IDs. Often, he said, students borrow IDs of older friends or siblings, but he encounters many counterfeits, too.

“Most of the fakes – they get a friend’s license, take off the plastic and try to manipulate it,” Detective Ham said. In addition, he said, some are computer-generated. “With most of those, you can tell they’re fakes in daylight, but they might pass as authentic in a dark bar.”

One recent exception, though, was a student who had an ID that was “so good that he wouldn’t normally have been caught; he even had the hologram right,” Detective Ham said. But the student, who was stopped by a university police officer for an alcohol violation, opened his wallet to reveal both his real license and the fake.

When the officer questioned him about why he had two cards, he came clean. He’s now cooperating with state officials on the promise of a reduced charge, Detective Ham said.

Seeking the source

The DPS, which is responsible for investigating cases of forged state IDs, handles more than 1,000 a year – “and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Vinger said. In most of the cases, he said, investigators try to “work their way up the food chain” to people who make and sell fake IDs.

“That’s who we really want,” he said.

In Texas, manufacturing or selling forged state ID cards, as Joseph did, is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and a $ 10,000 fine. It’s a risk Joseph was willing to take, he said, because of the benefit – having access to alcohol.

The card, he said, is “definitely a status symbol. It opens a door to all these new social opportunities.” And when it comes to social advancement, many students aren’t going to allow the law to stand in the way.

“The joke around here is when SMU students come as freshmen, they’re issued fake IDs,” said Southern Methodist University police Capt. Michael Snellgrove. “But this has always been a problem. Even when I was in college in Georgia, when the drinking age was 18, people had them.

“This isn’t going to go away.”