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Cat-and-Mouse Game Gets Tougher

Thanks to computers and the Internet, teens are becoming more sophisticated with fake IDs, which are becoming more high-tech --and much harder to detect.


Outside the Palace nightclub in Hollywood on Friday night, the young people wait in huddles, in pairs, or alone. They count their money, clutch their IDs, eagerly anticipating the 18-and-over dance event. There's only one obstacle between them and a good time: Eddie Baker.

Palace doorman for seven years, Baker herds them masterfully inside, branding each hand with a technique he's developed for speed and accuracy. Between the fingers of one hand, he grips two stamps; in the other, he checks their IDs. With a flick of his wrist, it's either "21" or "No Alcohol."

In an hour and a half, he scans about 400 IDs--driver's licenses from California, Texas, Hawaii, Indiana and New York, passports from around the world, military IDs. He knows almost every trick. Some nights, he'll catch as many as 20 kids with fakes.

When a young man hands him an international driver's license, usually issued by AAA insurance, that says he's 23, Baker takes a closer look. "No alcohol." Busted, the young man shrugs it off without an argument. "I'll still have a good time," he says and trots off toward the dance floor.

Most of the time, Baker says it's easy to spot fakes. Like the kids who glue their picture on an older person's driver's license. Or a 5-foot-8 kid whose ID says he's 6 foot 3. Or the girl who substituted a photo of herself taken in a photo booth with a wavy blue curtain in the background.

Recently, though, his job has become more difficult. Savvy kids can obtain high-quality fake IDs on the Internet or use computers to make or alter their own. Some obtain real IDs from the DMV with documents from look-alike older siblings or friends.

"Some of the fake ones are unbelievable," Baker says. "They look like the real thing."

The volume and ingeniousness of the new fakes are causing headaches among authorities and bar and convenience store owners as they try to match wits with the young people who make or use them. As many as 75% to 80% of young people have fake IDs, estimate students and the authorities who study them. In California, DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff says it's not that easy. DMVs periodically introduce new security features on driver's licenses, such as holograms, ghost photos, magnetic stripes or bar codes. Considering the spiraling sophistication of the new technology, staying ahead of the curve is "a difficult challenge--on both sides of the street," Nossoff says.

"There's nothing more creative than a teenager trying to get hold of cigarettes or a six pack of beer," agrees Robert Holloway, senior executive vice president for the New York-based Intelli-Check, one of several entrepreneurs who sell specialized scanning machines that detect bogus IDs.

To a previous generation of teenagers who just scraped and re-inked their cards, the new techniques appear to range from the amazing to the hilarious.

One enterprising North Carolina college student built a life-size driver's license and photographed his customers with their heads behind a cutout window. The photograph was reduced to wallet size, then laminated.

Some have changed numbers by applying White-Out with a hypodermic needle. Others have been able to change the information encoded on the magnetic strip on the back of driver's licenses (which duplicates information from the front). Holloway's machine, which sells for $2,495, reads the three invisible lines of DMV information. It can also accept software to read upgraded codes periodically changed by the DMV.

Teenagers, naturally, are aware that scan machines are limited and more often try to fool them with genuine IDs that belong to someone else.

"I can scan their age, but it's not their picture," says Axel Arana, the evening clerk at Irvine's Barranca Shell mini-mart, which uses a less elaborate model, sold by CardCom Technology for $495. After four months, the machine has helped him catch only one or two minors trying to buy cigarettes or alcohol. By checking the photo, he catches about two kids a week, he says.

A 20-year-old college student from Los Angeles, on probation for carrying a fake ID, explains how he might get around both the machine and the clerk: "Say I happened to find an identification of someone on the floor," he says. "I could take your bar code and put it onto the back of my fake ID."

Raised on computers, an increasing number of young people are turning to computer graphics programs or the Internet.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations estimated that 30% of all phony IDs were being made on the Internet--either by direct sales of "novelty" IDs, or CD-Rom kits with templates that instruct buyers how to make their own. With the method catching on, says subcommittee investigator Kirk Walder, that figure could now be as high as 60%.

The Demand Is High

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