It is easier than ever these days for a teenager to buy a fake identification card, and the cards they get look more real than ever. But few teenagers understand how severe the punishment can be if they’re caught with one.
At midnight on a Thursday night in November, the 2300 block of Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue is jammed with college students wandering from bar to bar. The scene is lively with a little dose of crazy: Two guys push and shove each other on one side of the street, while on the other side three unwieldy students trip and bump into some startled (and angry) bystanders. They’ve all clearly had a lot to drink.
At O’Malley’s West, Fuze, and other bars that line the block, bouncers stand outside and check the ID of each person in line. Often a bouncer will take a good 10 seconds to examine the card, check out the face, and double-check the ID again, before letting someone in.
That routine is repeated at several other bars that night as bouncers let in a particular group of three young women who are out for a night of dancing and drinking.
The problem is that one of these women is 20, another is 19 and the third is 18 years old.
Each woman gets into these bars by using remarkably realistic fake IDs -- with holograms and graphics and barcodes so convincing they can even fool police officers. Even when one of these "fakes" is placed side-by-side with a real license, it can be nearly impossible to figure out which is which.
An increasing number of kids order these cards online, from a variety of websites which each purport to sell "novelty" IDs and licenses. Many of the sites are based overseas, but easily accessible to any group of kids with a laptop and some cash.
Teenagers typically pool their money (the websites offer discounted prices for volume orders – and duplicate cards in case one gets confiscated). Teenagers fill out a form on the website, choosing the state and address they want to have. Then they upload their photos (the sites give advice on how to look and the background to use to make it look like a photo that would be taken at a legitimate department of motor vehicles), and send out the cash. Within a week or two, a nondescript package arrives in the mail. It may contain anything from a random videotape or a necklace or a pair of gloves – but hidden somewhere inside is a pile of sparkling new – and completely fake – IDs.
"We are in a race all the time against what technology can produce," said Tyler Dumontelle, an investigator with the Illinois Secretary of State Police.
Dumontelle teaches local police departments how to spot these fraudulent driver’s licenses and also helps conduct stings to catch teenagers trying to use a fake at a bar.
"We went from a time about six years ago when you could almost peel a fake driver’s license apart in two seconds – to something now [where] they’ve managed to duplicate all the rather fancy holograms from various states," he explained.
And while easy access to these sophisticated IDs is a problem, Dumontelle said an even bigger problem may be the casual attitude that teenagers have these days when it comes to using – and possessing – these fraudulent I.D.s and licenses.
"At lot of times when we arrest them, it’s almost like they can’t fathom that they’re under arrest,” he says. "I think there is a culture, among the college students especially, that this is the norm; that you’ll have a fake I.D., and you’ll go to these nightclubs in Chicago or around the state. They don’t expect the police officers from the Illinois Secretary of State’s police to be the one that they are either handing their ID to, or who’s going to be checking their license."
But in fact, the Secretary of State’s police conducted 84 "stings" of bars in a 12-month period from July of 2011 through June of 2012, and during that time police arrested 324 teenagers carrying fake IDs.
But even that fact may not deter many teens from buying and using these phony licenses because they commonly believe the penalty is minor; basically the equivalent of a parking ticket.
"It’s just a fine," said one of the teens who got in to several bars during their Thursday night pub crawl. "Not that big a deal."
But -- in fact – the penalty is much more than a fine – and teenagers (and their parents) are often surprised to learn that a fake ID arrest can remain a very big deal for a very long time.
"I make sure to let them know that by possessing a fake driver’s license, they’ve committed a felony,' said Dumontelle.
In fact, possession of a fraudulent ID is a class four felony in Illinois.
"That’s the same thing as if they punched me in the face," he says. "You could actually go to prison for that."
Dumontelle acknowledges that he’s not really aiming to throw these teens in jail. Often, he says, a little bit of shock may do the trick.
"I keep a box of tissues in the car because I think, sometimes, it’s not until they’re arrested, in handcuffs, in the police car, and you’re discussing the crime with them that it really hits: This is serious," he said.
But it’s a serious-enough arrest that it stays on a teenager’s record permanently, following along as he or she applies to college, seeks out an internship, or applies for a job. Anyone can easily find it.
That may be the one thing that will shock parents, who may have had some experience using fake IDs when they were young, into realizing that these new IDs are a whole different ball game.
"Just because they got away with something and didn’t get hurt or injured, that doesn’t mean your own kids are going to have the same thing, especially in today’s times," said Dumontelle. "I get to see the other side to this: where a kid is hurt and all he has is a fake ID and we can’t locate his family, or where there’s a traffic accident or crash."
"I don’t like to see dead kids," he says. "I’ve seen enough."