F.A.B. IDs: detecting fake, altered, and borrowed cards – Focus on Training

Roger Johnson

In the United States, 18-year-olds can legally drive, vote, and die for their country, but they cannot drink alcohol. Viewing this discrepancy in the law as a denial of their rights, today’s teens are determined to beat the system, This results in a proliferation of false identification cards (IDs)(1) and a nightly cat-and-mouse game between the youths and the law enforcement officers and alcohol beverage licensees who stand in their way.

Indeed, both law enforcement officers and retailers have become increasingly frustrated as false IDs have become a way of life for many thirsty 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. Aided by today’s technology, these would-be patrons have become so sophisticated in their methods that they leave many alcohol beverage licensees and police officers shaking their heads.

Officials in Wisconsin faced similar concerns, which were compounded by the state’s economic climate and environmental factors. In Wisconsin, a 40-ounce bottle of beer can cost less than a 33-ounce bottle of sparkling water, and the state beer tax has not increased since 1969. An abundance of bars and liquor stores provides teens with easy access to alcohol. Moreover, the Europeans who settled in the area over a century ago not only drink alcohol on a regular basis, they actually celebrate it through such festivals as Oktoberfest. Together, these factors make the state a prime target for underage drinkers using false IDs to purchase alcohol.

Many of these youths can be found on college campuses. One study concluded that as many as 22 percent of Wisconsin college students have false IDs,(2) although university police officers estimate numbers as high as 50 percent. One police detective at the University of Wisconsin at Madison has confiscated false IDs from every state in the nation, including Alaska and Hawaii.


Tasked with enforcing alcohol beverage laws, special agents of the Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Section of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue knew that they would have to find a way to combat the state’s underage drinking problem. They also realized that any strategy would need to have a broad impact for both law enforcement and the retail industry without draining the department’s limited resources. With these requirements in mind, section agents developed a training program designed to help law enforcement officers and alcohol beverage retailers spot false IDs.


To begin, agents researched the methods used to manufacture forgeries by gathering information and false ID cards confiscated by university police departments, bar and liquor store owners located near college campuses, and in some cases, from the experts themselves, the counterfeiters. During the intelligence-gathering phase, it became clear that the cards generally fall into three categories: fake, altered, and borrowed.

Fake IDs

For the most part, fake, or counterfeit, IDs encompass two different types. Some closely resemble state driver’s licenses. Others, such as identification cards manufactured by mail-order firms, may have no legal counterpart, making illegal ones harder to detect.

Still, both types of counterfeit cards may contain anomalies that can alert officials to their lack of authenticity. For example, a fake driver’s license, when compared to the real thing, may be a different size, thickness, or color. Letters and numbers may differ in size, typeface, or placement, or they may be fuzzy. In fact, although many counterfeiters spend a great deal of time reproducing the front of the card, they may merely photocopy the reverse side, leaving blurred letters and/or dark images.

No matter how professional-looking it is, the front of the counterfeit card may miss the mark. The photograph may lack the quality of the motor vehicle card, producing a shadow or glare or giving the subject “red-eye.” Finally, the state seal or logo may be missing or altered. Mail-order IDs may actually contain such phrases as “for personal use,” “office use only,” or “not a government document,” a sure sign that the card is a fake.

Altered IDs

Altered IDs may exhibit signs of tampering in one or more places, including the numbers, the photograph, and the laminate. The birth date, driver’s license number, height, and weight may be scratched or bleached out and inked over or cut out and reinserted. If altered, the numbers may be bumpy.

Changed numbers in the birth date may not correspond to the driver’s license number, which many states code with the birth date and other identifying data. In Wisconsin, for example, the 7th and 8th numbers match the year of birth and the 9th through 11th numbers indicate the person’s sex.(3)

A photograph with bumpy surfaces or rough edges may have been inserted over the original. Because many states place their seal over the photograph, an ID altered in this manner would cover part of the seal.

Changes in the card’s laminated cover often indicate tampering. It may contain glue lines or rough edges, especially near the photograph. Altered numbers may not match up after the laminate is put back into place. A shadowy or cloudy image on the card means that a new laminate covers the original.

Borrowed IDs

Oftentimes, minors borrow identification from individuals who can drink legally. Although appearances change, even subtle differences between the subject presenting the ID and the photograph and/or the physical description data on the card should be questioned.

Also included in this category are duplicate and expired cards. An expired driver’s license or one marked “DUPL” may not belong to the person presenting it as identification.

Training Aids

After gathering a representative sample of fake, altered, and borrowed cards, agents photographed the cards and made them into slides, accentuating the points officers and retailers should examine in determining their validity. While most are examples of Wisconsin IDs, the slides also include those from other states. In addition to serving as a visual reference, these cards show that the same techniques used to alter and counterfeit cards in Wisconsin are used throughout the United States.


During the 4-hour training session, students view the slide presentation, while listening to an informative lecture, which includes a review of the laws governing the manufacture and use of false IDs. Students also receive a close-up, hands-on look at the cards found in the slides.

Next, they put their newly acquired skills to the test. The instructor passes out 25 cards to the class; some, but not all, are altered or counterfeit. The students must determine which cards are bad and why. This practical exercise allows students to evaluate their ability to spot false IDs. As an added benefit, it gives law enforcement officers an appreciation for what liquor licensees confront on a daily basis.

An instructional text accompanies the visual aids. In addition to describing each card in detail, the text provides anecdotes to explain further how the cards were created, spotted, or seized.

Another handout given to the students is an ID-checking guide. The easy-to-use guide provides clues for identifying fake, altered, and borrowed cards. It also presents tips for obtaining corroborating information from cardholders.

A clever tactic involves casually conversing with the cardholder. For example, if an individual presents an ID card (as opposed to a driver’s license) as proof of age, the retailer can inquire about the drive to the establishment. A person who admits to driving there should be able to present a license that matches the information on the ID card.

Officers and retailers also might question the carrier about some basic information on the card, such as the address, middle initial, or height and weight. Someone using a borrowed ID may not know the right answers. Another approach involves obtaining the person’s signature, which may not match the one on the ID.

People carrying false IDs – whether fake, altered, or borrowed – rarely can produce backup documentation, whereas most people have several legitimate forms of identification. When confronted with a questionable ID, officers and retailers should ask for additional documentation, such as a Social Security card, a credit card, or a hunting or fishing license.


In classic examples of industry and government working together, the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute incorporated the ID-checking guide into their annual point-of-sale campaign aimed at thwarting underage drinking. Together. they have produced over 1 million laminated cards with tips for spotting false IDs. Printed in English, Spanish, and Korean, the cards go to retail establishments across the United States. The organizations also have teamed with independent breweries to produce a booklet that contains photographs of driver’s licenses from the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

With assistance from revenue agents and funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation produced a training video, a laminated ID-checking guide, and a responsible-server packet, which gives alcohol servers and sellers a uniform policy to follow. Industry associations, including the Wisconsin Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Tavern Hosts, cooperated in distributing these materials throughout the state.


Since the program’s inception in 1988, Wisconsin revenue agents have provided free training to both industry officials and law enforcement officers in a number of forums. In addition to state and local officers and alcohol beverage retailers, recipients have included Pennsylvania Alcohol Beverage Control agents and members of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association. Likewise, the class has been incorporated into Wisconsin’s 400-hour police recruit training program, required for law enforcement certification in the state. This training is especially beneficial for new recruits, who often get assigned shifts where they encounter underage drinkers with false IDs.

Because Wisconsin law usually imposes civil penalties on youths who make or carry false IDs, no statewide statistics exist to gauge the full impact of this training program. Still, the class provides students with the ability to detect false IDs, a skill that officers can use in any situation where a subject presents identification. Moreover, the training has created a greater awareness in law enforcement, the beverage industry, and the community at large.


Like the rest of the 50 states, Wisconsin requires patrons to be 21 years old to buy and consume alcohol legally. At the same time. today’s youths encounter tremendous peer and social pressure to drink. As the two forces clash, law enforcement faces a host of problems, most notably, a proliferation of false IDs.

At first glance, the problem of false ID use by underage drinkers in Wisconsin seemed insurmountable, especially in light of the state’s economic climate and environmental factors. Yet, even with limited resources, agents from the Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Section of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue were able to develop and implement a broad strategy with statewide impact. With assistance from the private sector, they instituted a comprehensive training program designed to help law enforcement officers and beverage industry employees alike detect fake, altered, and borrowed IDs.


1 Unless otherwise noted, ID refers to both driver’s licenses and identification cards.

2 “Wisconsin Youth Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Final Report: Task Force to the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse,” August 1988, 50-51.

3 Numbers below 500 indicate a male; 500 and above indicate a female.


This checklist gives a thumbnail sketch of what officers should look for when examining identification cards.

Fake IDs

* Check the size, thickness, and color of the card

* Check the placement, size, and typeface of the letters and numbers

* Check the photograph for shading, glare, or “red-eye”

* Check the state seal for accuracy

* Check the back for blurred or dark images

* Check for such phrases as “for personal use,” “office use only,” or “not a government document”

* Request backup documentation

* Reject and confiscate questionable cards

Altered IDs

* Check for numbers that have been scratched or bleached out and inked over or cut out and reinserted

* Check for overlapping numbers; the laminate may have been peeled back and replaced

* Check for cloudy images; a new laminate may cover the old one

* Compare the birth date to the driver’s license number because in some states these numbers match

* Check for rough spots, especially around the edges and over the photograph

* Check the state seal for accuracy and completeness: an inserted photograph may cover part of it

* Request backup documentation

* Reject and confiscate questionable cards

Borrowed IDs

* Compare the photograph and physical identifiers to the cardholder and question discrepancies

* Ask the presenter to verify personal data on the card

* Obtain a signature and compare it to the one on the card

* Be wary of expired and duplicate cards

* Request backup documentation

* Reject and confiscate questionable cards

Information provided by the Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Section, Wisconsin State Department of Revenue, and the Office of Transportation Safety, Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Special Agent Johnson serves as the assistant section chief for the Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Section of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue in Madison.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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