Fake IDs for underage drinkers have graduated from being a dorm room enterprise to a China-based Internet business, say authorities who are scrambling to stay a step ahead of the counterfeiters.
"We've gone from the days of having a friend with an X-ACTO knife and IDs so bad it's amazing that anyone would believe it ... to now, when they look so real, it's frightening," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. "And they're everywhere."
More than 1,700 fake IDs from China have been intercepted in the Chicago area in the first six months of 2011 compared with about 10 per month last year, said Brian Bell, a Chicago spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A recent seizure at O'Hare International Airport included knockoffs hidden inside boxes of books, toys and electronics headed for Chicago and the north suburbs, especially Wheeling, Northbrook and Arlington Heights, Bell said. The packages typically contained two IDs per customer, an extra "in case you lose one," he said.
The intended recipients were ages 17 to 20 and paid about $100 per ID, always by money order or wire transfer, Bell said.
The Cook County sheriff's office last month announced the arrests of 40 young people as a result of the recent seizure of counterfeit driver's licenses, described as being of "exceptionally high quality."
Most were students enrolled at Midwest colleges who could have been charged with a felony, resulting in possible jail time, fines and loss of driving privileges. Instead, the offenders -- whom the sheriff's office declined to identify -- were issued misdemeanor citations, requiring 25 hours of community service.
"They were shocked to see police at their front door," Dart said. "They didn't even realize the gravity of what they were doing."
A simple Google search turns up several overseas websites offering to sell "novelty IDs."
"Summer is here. Are you ready to party? We'll make sure that you are," said one website that authorities called one of the most popular overseas sellers of Illinois IDs.
A 20-year-old who attends a San Diego college said her China-made ID is "wonderful" -- and she is somewhat of an expert on what works at campus bars. This is her third fake ID. The first, from Florida, was confiscated. The second, from Canada, got questioned. "But this one is absolutely perfect," she said. Like other users of fraudulent IDs who spoke to the Chicago Tribune, she agreed to do so on the condition of anonymity.
China has become the go-to destination for all things counterfeit -- from designer bags to bootleg movies, Dart said. "Sites are next to impossible to shut down. Even if you do, they'll just reopen under a new name."
While buying overseas may be the latest phenomena, phony licenses have been around since minors have been trying to sneak into bars and nightclubs.
That's part of the problem, officials say. Fictitious licenses are treated with a wink and nostalgia, not as a crime aggressively pursued by a variety of local, state and federal agencies and attached to everything from charges of driving under the influence to identity theft.
"As a society, we send a lot of mixed messages on fake IDs and underage drinking," said Mundelein police Chief Ray Rose, who heads the Lake County Underage Drinking Task Force. "Many parents treat it like a rite of passage."
A half-century ago, the typical seller was some guy down the hall who used a typewriter. Later, photocopiers, computers and laser printers became tools of the trade.
But just as the scammers' technology is evolving, so are ways to root out fraud.
Photos started appearing on driver's licenses in Illinois in the late 1970s. Holograms were added in the late 1980s. About a decade later, laminate replaced plastic casing. The digital system was introduced, allowing data and images to be stored and retrieved for future comparison.
Today, the Illinois secretary of state's office has a special task force dedicated to combating fake IDs. But no matter what security is put in place -- holograms, ultraviolet images, data-encoded magnetic strips -- the "bad guys" have a way of catching up, said Dennis Krier of the issuance integrity section of the secretary of state's office.
While Krier wouldn't divulge details, the current licenses contain more than a dozen security features, including some that are invisible to the naked eye. "And the measures that are in place now probably won't be next year."
Technology is but one weapon in the battle. Equally important are vigilant employees at bars, clubs and liquor stores.
"You have to take this very seriously," said Ray Quinn, who owns Martyrs' on the North Side. "It can be a real death sentence to your business."
Quinn makes sure his bouncers are up to date with any changes in IDs, including books depicting every out-of-state license. They especially scrutinize anyone on the cusp of legal age or acting jittery. If they still have doubts, a rapid-fire grilling on information -- such as a Social Security number -- usually gets the job done, he said.
Yet, numerous young adults have stories of how they gained access to alcohol with a phony piece of plastic.
One young man in the Navy, stationed at Great Lakes, gave his Chinese import an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "To tell you the truth, when I sent off my money, I didn't know what I'd get ... but every great memory of my life came from that ID," he said, estimating that he used it "hundreds of times" in the Chicago area. "It was my passport to fun."
Not that the entire fake ID industry has been outsourced.
One former engineering major at an Ivy League school still did a brisk fake ID business -- which he embraced not to make money, "but so I could drink with my friends."
He learned his "craft" from a China-based website, which he said neglected to mention an occupational hazard: The fine, brush-on metal powder used for replicating holograms clogged his pores. "I couldn't sweat. My room was completely contaminated," he said.
He cranked out about 100 fakes during his college years, he said, and had only one customer wind up in court. "I offered to make her another one, free of charge, but she decided just to wait until she was 21."
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