Trying to pass as someone you are not is an age-old con game.
Yet the high-tech fake driver’s licenses now making their way onto U.S. soil are so accurate and easy to obtain that federal law enforcement agencies are tracking them.
“This does not look like an amateur job,” Michael Tabman, a former FBI special agent in charge, said as he held fake IDs purchased over the Internet by The Star’s reporting partner, KCTV5.
In a matter of minutes, simply by visiting a Chinese website, buyers can “become” someone else. The danger with these knock-offs goes far beyond underage drinking and exposes a possible threat to national security.
“The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security conducts criminal investigations into passport and visa fraud,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said, “which often reveal the use of fake identification as source or ‘breeder documents’ used to secure a fraudulent U.S. passport or visa.”
KCTV5 investigated with the help of 21-year-old news intern Jonathan Cooper. Investigative reporter Eric Chaloux logged him on to a website boasting novelty IDs, including U.S. driver’s licenses, with holograms and ultra-violet images so accurate they would fool any bar or police scanner.
Cooper provided his real name, birth date, height and weight and a picture. With neither Kansas nor Missouri driver’s licenses available, Cooper selected Pennsylvania, which the website claimed as one of the best states available.
A few days later, following instructions received via email, KCTV5 wired $200 to a person in Beijing and waited.
According to the director of prevention for DCCCA Inc., an alcohol-awareness group in Lawrence, the foreign-made fake IDs are a well-known commodity to area teenagers. When DCCCA Inc. ran an ad campaign for the high-tech knock-offs, targeting Douglas County kids, the response was huge, Jen Jordan said.
“We had almost 600 hits in the first 24 hours,” Jordan said. “And that’s them actively clicking on an ad that they thought was going to take them to buy a fake ID.”
Eight days after payment, KCTV5 received a package from China. At first, it didn’t appear to contain any IDs. They were tucked inside a small red box, hidden underneath a cheap purple bracelet and some padding. To retired FBI agent Tabman, that tactic is very telling.
“What that shows you right away by putting this little trinket on top, should this be opened by customs or someone else, to make it look like an innocent little gift,” Tabman said. “That right there will show you your criminal intent.”
And the 24-year veteran’s concern grew when he examined the fake Pennsylvania license, which included its holograms and bar codes.
“Well think. If it was easy to do this, if you were able to get this driver’s license, it’s just as easy if not easier to get a birth certificate,” Tabman said. “You take your driver’s license, which is sort of the de facto identification in the United States. You take that with your birth certificate. You go get your passport.”
The fake IDs purchased by KCTV5 made it past the screening equipment used by the Lee’s Summit and Kansas City police departments.
Lee’s Summit Police Sgt. Chris Depue shined one of the department’s new ultra-violet flashlights on it.
“They’d probably take this, yeah,” Depue said.
Kansas City police officer Chris Praschak sees licenses all day when he pulls over drivers.
“I mean I just had a Pennsylvania driver’s license yesterday,” Praschak said. “I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
Praschak ran the fake license through his department’s e-ticket machine to test the bar code.
“So it comes up as Pennsylvania license?” Chaloux asked.
“Yeah,” Praschak replied. “See when I scanned it, it gets the number and a Pennsylvania license.”
However, the names did not match. Kansas City police checked motor vehicle records and discovered the bar code on the knock-off was linked not to Cooper, but to a different person in Pennsylvania.
The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, screeners who check IDs at U.S. airports do not have this same technology to match driver’s licenses against any sort of centralized database. Instead, the TSA relies on visual examinations of documents and traveler behavior.
In Lawrence, where liquor store clerks spend their shifts trying to spot bogus licenses, Cooper used his Pennsylvania ID to buy alcohol at one place without any issues.
But he ran into trouble at the next stop. Clerk Noah Wallace told KCTV5 he studies identification manuals and spotted a problem with the picture on Cooper’s fake. He said it wasn’t clear enough, but that Cooper’s actions were what made him suspicious in the first place.
“Most of it is just the person,” Wallace said. “It’s just the person, how they act.”
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told KCTV5 that fake IDs coming from international document mills are a significant concern and a top priority.