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Image courtesy of Allison Lu

On college campuses across the nation, underage students turn to fake IDs to gain access to alcohol. But if there’s one thing for sure, that’s fake IDs don’t come cheap. Are fakes really worth the high prices that producers charge? NBR took an inside look at the underground market for fake IDs to figure out what really goes into making one. 

Names have been changed.

Freshman Samantha Davis nervously waits in line outside of a local Evanston bar reciting her “personal information” as she looks over her Oregon ID. This would be the first time that Davis would hand over this ID the bouncer, and she’s having second thoughts. She grips tightly to the plastic, banking on the fact that she’s memorized the information front and back.

Davis’ friend had almost dragged her to a place that was probably too “sophisticated” for her ID to pass. They opted for a shadier venue, hoping the bouncer would believe she was old enough to drink.

“I knew I had to look somewhat collected when we got there otherwise they would be really suspicious, but my friend made me more nervous. I still kind of get nervous even though I know I’ve never had a problem with it,” Davis said.

However, memorizing fictitious addresses, birthdates, and zip codes will only carry a student so far. Consumers want a product that they can trust that will not only be reliable, but also be scarily close to the actual DMV product.

However, producing the fakes is easier said than done. The quality of the product varies due to minute changes in the polyvinyl chloride, spectrophotometer matched ink, and luminescent holograms. Up-front costs including the printer and templates which can run up to $2000 alone according to The Economist.

“Fixed costs are huge: the machine, the overlays, but once those are covered the IDs themselves are a very minimal cost. But what the real cost is, [is] in the risk. You are paying someone to take on that risk for you. Producers are constantly having to acquire templates and holograms,” Hall said.

“Honestly it’s hard to tell [if the ID is fake]. Often, you cannot be completely sure that the ID is fake until you run it in the database,” Evanston Police Commander Joseph Dugan said, referring to the state license database.

This is where fake ID producers come in. Mike Hall, Northwestern sophomore and producer, said that people who opt to create and distribute fake IDs take on the responsibility of remaining anonymous at all times.

“You have to find a way to wire money or seek out a way of transferring funds so you aren’t going to expose your bank accounts. Beyond that, you also end up shipping these ID’s straight to your front door. By taking on the risk for these students I have an opportunity to profit from it, ” Hall said.

The fake ID business has become a lucrative industry for not only foreign providers in countries like China, but also for college students looking to capture some of the student market while simultaneously profiting from the high demand.

Competing with popular international companies such as “21overnight” and “idchief”, producers aim to convince students that their fake ID is the superior product. A successful producer makes an average of $1500 a week according to The Economist.

According to Hall, prices can run as high as three hundred dollars depending on the quality of the ID. The market is usually divided between three tiers of value. The lowest tier averages around$100 while the highest rounds up to $300.

“I personally use the tier system to differentiate between price points. The cheapest price point of $100 gives you very similar features to the other tiers. However, there are tiny nuances between IDs that make the difference between getting into the Deuce, Three Dots and a Dash, and Paris [bars]. Quality is the difference,” Hall said.  

In order to create the most realistic ID possible, producers and middlemen including Hall used the deep web browser Tor to protect their anonymity. This browser conceals users’ identification by re-routing Internet traffic through alternate servers across the world. Once on Tor, Hall used the online currency, Bitcoin in order to purchase the necessary materials to produce the ID.

But what the real cost is, is in the risk.”

“I’m taking care of the picture, Bitcoin, and the necessary contact between the producer. To do all of this you have to remain anonymous,” Hall said.

The logistics required to obtain these materials creates more legal hurdles and increased criminal prosecution. For example, producing fakes in Illinois will garner a Class Four Felony punishable with three years jail time according to Dugan.

“It’s not worth it to ruin your record, finances, etcetera. Let alone, what can happen if an underage drinker gets hurt while using the fake ID that you produced? It’s a big issue no matter what, but it’s hard to stop it unless we are notified of what is going on,” Dugan said. “Something has to happen for us to be able to trace an ID, whether that’s catching underage drinkers or getting a tip.”

While being caught red-handed doesn’t mean time behind bars, one risks losing his or her license for over a year. Consequences escalate when one snags a friend’s old ID or uses a passport, according to MTV.

Producers aren’t the only people that profit from fakes. Bouncers are also able to profit from taken IDs. Experienced bouncers are able to catch variations in shadows, differences in holograms, letter distinctions, texture and flexibility according to Drivers License Guide, an organization that specializes in fake ID detection. Once an ID is taken, bouncers may attempt to sell it back or take an upfront fee to ignore lower quality IDs.

On Thursday, April 7 at a local campus bar, NBR measured over 50 monetary transactions between students and a bouncer occurred in less than an hour.

Local law enforcement have been active in limiting bars from profiting from the fake ID industry. Evanston police has increased bar checks, where underage drinkers will attempt to enter a bar in order to determine how effective a bar is at carding.

“Often the bars are very proactive and are willing to work with us. [But] if bouncers are soliciting money from these ID’s I’m sure the establishments aren’t for that either. A liquor license is their main moneymaker. I would think that the businesses and the management should be taking that very seriously,” Dugan said.  

Illinois has similar arrest averages to nearby states for fake ID distribution. Officers, like Dugan, remain optimistic that they are creating a precedent for punishing local producers and middlemen.

“There are laws in the books to make an impact. We are pretty active in prohibiting underage drinking. In a college town, it’s always going to be a concern and it’s always something that we are going to deal with. However, it’s hard to measure our success because there is always a new class coming through, so it’s a constant effort,” Dugan said.

Despite the illicit nature of this industry, producers and bouncers remain engaged and eager to profit from college students. The continued demand of customers has created a market that leaves producers reluctant to leave regardless of the consequences, according to Hall.

“There are people willing to take on the risk for anything. You can take on risk for buying stock, you can for robbing banks, it all depends on the price. Very high-risk means very high reward,” Hall said.

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