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ABC cops use apps to spot fake IDs

This article originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Underage drinkers are using more sophisticated fake IDs, but alcohol enforcement officers in some states are using smartphone apps to scan driver’s licenses to help them quickly weed out the phonies.

“Before, if they gave us a good fake internet ID we couldn’t determine it wasn’t real by visual inspection,” said Rusty Hanna, Mississippi Alcoholic Beverage Control’s enforcement chief.

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Hanna’s ABC unit is one of nearly two dozen in 10 states that use an app called Age ID, according to the app’s developer, Intellicheck. It scans the barcode on the back of an ID and draws on a database containing information from every state’s motor vehicle department. It can verify the information in seconds and is updated at least monthly.

Penalties for minors who get caught possessing or using a false ID and trying to buy alcohol vary from state to state. Often, they receive a citation and must go to court and pay a fine, which can be as much as $1,000. In some states, they can face jail time. Some states also can suspend their driver’s license.

A 2014 study found that nearly two-thirds of 1,015 college students had used false IDs to circumvent age restrictions and buy alcohol. Those who did may be more likely to drink dangerously and have a higher risk of developing alcohol abuse and dependence, researchers concluded.

Phony IDs

During the 1960s and 70s, many states lowered the legal drinking age from 21 to 18. But after alcohol-related traffic fatalities among young people began rising, that trend reversed. In 1984, Congress passed the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, which required states to hike the legal age to 21 or face cuts in their federal highway funding. Every state ended up complying.

Some underage drinkers turn to counterfeit IDs, which they can manufacture themselves using software, an expensive printer and a laminating machine.

Others just buy them on the internet. They can purchase a sophisticated-looking ID with security features such as holograms, ultraviolet markings and magnetic strips simply by clicking onto one of many websites, uploading a photo, and filling in their personal information. Many companies that make them are based in China, ABC officers say.

The phony IDs typically cost anywhere from $50 to $200, but students often band together, pool their money and buy them at a cheaper group rate.

Officials warn that young people who purchase fake IDs online are opening themselves up to identity theft because they’re providing personal information and a credit card number to an overseas company they know nothing about.

Alcohol enforcement agencies, which often send plainclothes officers to bars, concerts and special events to look for underage drinkers, say the high-tech world of phony IDs has made them tougher to spot.

“Over the years, I’ve seen a vast improvement in the sophistication of the counterfeiters,” said James Jones, a Pennsylvania state police lieutenant and the president of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, which represents ABC officers. “It’s a little scary.”

Before they started using Age ID in October, Mississippi’s Hanna said the only way his officers could make a 100 percent verification was to call headquarters and have the dispatcher run the driver’s license number through a national database. The process could take three to five minutes for each ID.

“It was very cumbersome and you could only deal with one person at a time,” Hanna said. “With this phone app, if you’re checking on a group of five people, you can scan all of them and within two minutes you’re through.”

Hanna said all 24 of his agents use the app. Fake ID arrests have jumped from 196 last year to 267 this year.

But Hanna said the app isn’t foolproof. In a few cases, it verified that an ID was legitimate, but agents later determined it was not. He said his agency sent the information to Intellicheck, which updates the data and tries to find out why the phony wasn’t detected.

In North Carolina, a small number of Alcohol Law Enforcement branch agents started using the app last year and had positive results, said Kelton Brown, an assistant special agent in charge. In January, each of the 109 sworn officers got one, at a cost of $15 a month per app.

In May and June, officers scanned 304 IDs and found 101 were potentially fake or fraudulent, Brown said.

Alternative methods

Not everyone is sold on the idea of ABC officers relying on apps to spot phony IDs.

Some agencies, for example, prefer portable document verifiers that use computer-based software and high-quality scanners.

In Vermont, the Department of Liquor Control chose that type of mobile equipment after testing it and comparing it to a phone app, which was not as accurate in capturing fake IDs, according to the agency’s enforcement director, Skyler Genest.

And some critics are skeptical that ABC officers can detect all the phonies using scanners or apps.

“These officers have a false sense of security. They may catch some of the fake IDs, but they are not catching them all,” said Susan Dworak, CEO of Real Identities, a Silicon Valley-based company that sells an app that teaches how to check IDs and spot a fake. “You need to use the human senses and cannot remove the human being from any step in the ID checking process.”

But state alcohol agencies that use apps say for now, they’re a helpful device.

In July, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board signed a contract to equip 80 officers with Age ID apps, at a cost of $1,200 a month, spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said. That followed a successful five-month pilot program in which a handful tried it out in bars, restaurants and marijuana stores.

“We’ve been teaching our people to visually inspect IDs for years and years, but this app is helping augment that work,” Carpenter said. “We found it to be a valuable tool to combat this problem.”

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