SAVANNAH, GA. — Above the bar at Wet Willy's hang hundreds of counterfeit driver's licenses hailing from New Jersey to Florida.
The collage of bemused mugs constitutes a lineup of underage barflies, nabbed at the door of this popular riverfront lounge and sent skulking back out into the night. For the bouncers, busting underage drinkers is almost a certain satisfaction: Here at Wet Willy's, they average about eight fake IDs a weekend.
Such trophies point to a sober reality on the nightclub scene from Portsmouth, N.H., to Atlanta: Fifteen years after states began raising the drinking age to 21, the clamor for fake IDs has only increased.
New hologram and encoding technologies invented to curb the fake-ID market have, in fact, backfired. Cheap Internet templates, and high-quality printers and card-pressing machines, have led to a steep rise in fake-ID websites and ID "chop shops." That has police and motor vehicle departments across the country - to say nothing of the FBI - scrambling to thin the ranks of college students, illegal immigrants, and outright thieves sporting wallets full of high-quality fake identification. Â
While the FBI worries more about identity theft and credit-card fraud, the explosion in the fake-ID market is a bold warning about a world where false identities are becoming easy to create. And with theft and forgery becoming more anonymous via the Web, the trend is only becoming more pervasive.
"It's just getting easier and easier to get a fake ID," says Nathan Grassi, a bartender at Savannah's Club One.
Of the various forms of identity theft or forgery, fake IDs used for procuring adult drinks are by far the most popular - and ubiquitous. While it's a relatively victimless crime - the bars, after all, get paid - it's indicative of a deeper trend affecting everyone from banks to retail stores.
In four separate stings during spring break in Florida this year, police netted more than 10,000 fake IDs and arrested 350 minors. By that estimate, police say there are likely millions of fake IDs in circulation throughout the country today. Indeed, some estimate that fully half of all highschoolers today carry some sort of forged ID.
In North Carolina's Chatham County, one well-known forger travels through the countryside in a nondescript van, churning out fake green cards out of the back. Technology has made his process easier, cheaper, and faster: Today, an "identity package" - green card, Social Security card, and driver's license - can cost as little as $100, down from $300 a few years ago.
Last month, 50,000 blank driver's licenses were stolen from a DMV office in Kerner, La. In Atlanta, police have tried to shut down shops selling realistic-looking Georgia IDs marked on the back as "souvenir IDs" - in easily removable script. Among the most popular to forge, Georgia IDs are making their way to lounges as far north as Boston. Meanwhile, banks confirm a similar rise in identity-related thefts: In 1997, banks reported 44 identity thefts; in 2000, that number rose to 617.
"The growth in ID forgeries has indeed been explosive," says Dana Turner, a security expert in Dallas. "The FBI doesn't have the means to even put a dent in it."
To be sure, bartenders still see the crude cut-out laminates that passed for fakes in the 1980s. But today most of the IDs that end up in buckets beside bouncers from Atlanta to Boston are first-rate forgeries.
Tammy Withington should know: Last year, the Velvet Elvis Lounge barkeep lived beside a fake-ID chop shop near Atlanta's club district. "You'll see 30 to 40 rich kids pulling up in their SUVs and talking on their cellphones, coming down to get their fake IDs," says Ms. Withington.
In effect, a forger needs little more than a photo on a colored background, a high-quality printer, a $15 laminate pouch, and a few other items to make a fake ID using $29 templates from the Internet. The machines that print out today's new generation of credit-card-style driver's licenses can be bought for a few thousand dollars.
Out here in the mossy squares of Savannah, it's easy to find a "scab" to forge a license. At school, too, several students are already learning the trade, says Mark, who just graduated from high school here in Savannah.
For teens, the access tempts even the most recognizable of people: Presidential daughter Jenna Bush's mug now smiles from above the Texas bar where she was busted earlier this year with a fake ID.
IDs from Georgia and Florida seem to be the most popular and easiest to fake. But bartender Grassi says lots of people show up at Club One with fake IDs from New Jersey and New York, which are laminated with a picture and easily broken codes. New Jersey has promised to make its IDs more forgery-proof next year, to the tune of $12 million.
In most states, having a fake ID amounts to a traffic violation, although many states are ratcheting up the penalty. At the same time, police acknowledge that prosecutions are unusual - both for fake-ID users and forgers. One Web forger found guilty in Florida earlier this year was sentenced to cleaning up a local highway.
Bars and police haven't given up trying. At the Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., servers get a $50 bonus for every fake ID confiscated. In Virginia, a teen can face a year in jail for carrying a fake ID.
After introducing its new ID just two years ago, Georgia is already thinking about adding more security features. North Carolina now has a different color scheme for underage drivers. Maryland plans to introduce vertical driver's licenses for minors next year.
What's more, ID scanners that can read the new licenses' bar codes are available to bars for as little as $45. And earlier this year, a new federal law aimed at Internet fake-ID sites cut the number from 10,000 to 2,000.