'Near-perfect' fake IDs pose law enforcement challenge

'Near-perfect' fake IDs pose law enforcement challenge »Play Video
Judy Lewis, an enforcement officer for the Liquor Control Board, displays confiscated fake IDs.
Robert McLaughlin, the owner of Earl's on the Ave, lays out about two dozen fake driver's licenses on his counter.

"So this is about two weeks of fake IDs we've pulled at the door," says McLaughlin.

Confiscating fake driver's licenses from underage college students looking to drink is nothing new for him and his staff. He runs one of the most popular pubs near the University of Washington campus. One of the unsaid rites of passage for graduating Huskies is having a fake ID confiscated at Earl's on the Ave. So it's not an understatement to say McLaughlin knows something about fake driver's licenses.

"The difference from fakes from the past is, the quality has improved incredibly - it's near perfect" says McLaughlin.

And that is the issue not only facing McLaughlin and his staff, but anyone who must accept a driver's license as a person's ID - this includes bartenders, loan officers, gun resellers and above all, law enforcement.

Long gone are the days of printing fake driver's licenses with digital scanners. The newest fake licenses come with holograms, working barcodes, hidden markings in all the right places visible only by ultraviolet light and near-perfect font matches. And they are coming from China.

"The amount of fake IDs we are seeing coming from overseas - especially China - has increased a great deal," says Mike Milne, spokesman for the northwest division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Sixty-five students at Seattle University were caught by Homeland Security importing fake licenses from China in May. Officers tracked a package with the licenses coming from China to a residence hall on campus. The students involved were disciplined by the university, and they could have faced a felony charge for importing a false document.

A month earlier enforcement officers with the state Liquor Control Board - with the assistance of bars around Gonzaga University - did a crackdown on underage students trying to get in the bars using fake licenses. More than 100 fake IDs were confiscated during a month-long period, and most of them had been imported from China.

"They are right at the top in terms of sophistication," says Judy Lewis, an enforcement officer for the Liquor Control Board. Lewis laid out 170 fake licenses that had been confiscated primarily by bouncers at bars in Western Washington.

"They are very good, pretty close to perfect," says Lewis. Part of Lewis' job is to educate liquor establishments on how to identify fake IDs - not just the ones misrepresenting a Washington state license, but every license from every state.

It's a lot to keep track of because each state has different invisible markings, holograms, information, license sizes and card stock. No state is like the other. Lewis admits its a lot to remember for anyone, that includes bouncers, police officers and TSA agents.

"To the untrained eye, they are good enough to pass," says Lewis. But Lewis is quick to point out that the fake licenses are not totally flawless. She showed off very subtle irregularities in several fake licenses from various states when compared to a real license from that state.

"On the Ohio one, down here in the right corner is supposed to be the state seal, and it kind of looks like a smiley face," explains Lewis as she scans a fake Ohio license with an ultraviolet pen light. But what's especially troubling to law enforcement is not just the high quality of the fake license, but the ease of obtaining one. It takes just a few clicks on a website that is easily accessible by anyone.

We've chosen not to name the website but it's well known on college campuses. Law enforcement experts say it's been used successfully by thousands of students nationwide for a couple of years. But each year, the list of state licenses the website offers gets longer and the quality gets better.

A buyer chooses from a list of roughly two dozen states. There are videos that show off how a specific state's fake license appears under an ultraviolet light. The videos also show off the reflective nature of the holograms. A buyer fills out a form not unlike an order form from an online retailer. The buyer enters any personal information they want on their license, real or made-up.

The site even offers an option that lets the website pick a so-called "legal" address for the buyer. Buyers must upload a picture of signature and a picture of themselves. The site also provides instructions on how to pose for the photo to make it look like a DMV picture. After everything has been submitted, the buyer receives a confirmation email with payment instructions. Buyers are told to wire money to an individual in Bejing.

Once that payment has been received, buyers are told to expect a package within five to 10 business days. The minimum order is two IDs for $200. But the company offers a discount if 10 or more people order at once. The price will drop to $75 for two for each person. Buyers can choose to bargain with the company through their live chat support for a better deal.

KOMO News wanted to verify if the order process is as easy as promised. I ordered two fake Arizona licenses using my real personal information to avoid any legal issues. I couldn't order a fake Washington State license because the website didn't offer one.

Two weeks after I placed the order online, a package arrived via USPS international mail from China. It was labeled as containing jewelry. In side I did find a jewelry box with a wallet with Chinese printing on it, but no licenses inside the wallet. But the jewelry box appeared to have a false bottom. I peeled apart the box and found two fake Arizona licenses wrapped tightly in paper that was glued to the false bottom.

Surprisingly, the manufacture changed my personal information to an Arizona address that wasn't mine. Despite the address change, the ID's looked perfect to our untrained eye.
"Despite how easy it is to order these, there can be severe consequences for importing them into the United States," says Milne. That's because federal prosecutors could consider the fake ID's as false legal document when the importers intended use is to be an official ID.

The penalties for importing false documents in the U.S. are punishable up to a year in federal prison. The website says its products are strictly novelty items and should not be used as official identification. This appears to be the rationale the website is using to avoid prosecution.

U.S. law enforcement has reportedly traced the source of the shipments to a printing company in Guangzhou, China, but there's little it can do to stop the company from producing the fake licenses. So it's left up to an unusual army of law enforcement, bartenders, bouncers and regular people whose job is to figure out, on the spot, a fake driver's license from a real one.

As a reminder, the 9/11 hijackers carried 26 fake driver's licenses. More than 10 years later, TSA still doesn't use barcode scanners tied to a national database that could verify, in a few seconds, if the ID presented to them is legit. A TSA agent must rely on their training and an ultraviolet pen light - the same tools a bartender uses.