Known for its substandard merchandise, China is sending the U.S. at least one product that Ohio officials said is of remarkably high quality: fake IDs.
The counterfeit version of Ohio’s driver’s license has been intercepted by federal authorities in at least two cities with international mail facilities — Chicago and Cincinnati. But countless IDs have reached college students and others who ordered them online.
“It is a considerable problem that we’re dealing with,” said Robert Booker Jr., executive director of the Ohio Investigative Unit, an agency within the Department of Public Safety that enforces liquor laws.
Fake IDs are nothing new, and Ohio has its share of minors making them in dorm rooms or buying them elsewhere, including on the Internet. Yet the “novelty” IDs originating from one Chinese company are nearly flawless to the untrained eye, officials said.
They copy more of the security features that appear on the real thing – holograms, bar codes, magnetic strips that can be scanned, and ultraviolet images.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Chicago this year have seized more than 1,700 Chinese-produced counterfeit driver’s licenses for the states of Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and South Dakota. A majority were addressed to college students throughout the country — some in envelopes, others hidden inside boxes of jewelry, toys and electronic devices.
In March, seven Ohio University students were sentenced to suspended jail time after Cincinnati customs officials in January intercepted a package containing 20 high-quality fake driver’s licenses from Hong Kong.
According to a search-warrant affidavit, the fakes were “professional quality” and “excellent,” with holographic printing and working magnetic strips.
“Our greatest concern is the ease at which these high-quality fakes can be ordered over the Internet,” said David Murphy, Chicago field operations director for the Customs agency.
Internet companies typically charge $100 per license, though it can be less with bulk purchases.
Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles Registrar Mike Rankin is worried enough about the problem that he asked for it to be discussed when motor-vehicle administrators from across the U.S. meet later this month. He is hopeful that “legal and diplomatic” approaches can be found to deal with the Chinese counterfeiters.
Fake IDs not only enable underage drinking but are key to illegal immigration, identity theft, credit-card fraud and other financial crimes.
“This is a national and international problem, not just an Ohio problem,” Rankin said.
The Chinese IDs are not perfect knockoffs, however.
When the bar code on the back is scanned through a reader, it indicates the card originated from a Chinese company. Trained eyes also detect slight differences on the exterior of the card, according to BMV officials who declined to elaborate so as to not tip off their adversaries. A quick search of state computers also would show it to be a fake.
The problem is, many people who examine IDs — bartenders, bouncers, store clerks — do not have the same level of training as law enforcement or government workers.
Bars and clubs might not ask customers to take their IDs out of their wallets, missing an opportunity to see fairly obvious signs that they are counterfeits.
“What they’re looking at is the date of birth,” Booker said.
Governments try to stay ahead by adding newer security features to their cards. Criminals respond in kind with their own advances such as the anonymity of overseas Internet operations.
State officials said one fraud-fighting tool at their disposal is Ohio’s move to a driver’s license and identification card that — as of May 16 — are “materially” compliant with the 2005 federal Real ID Act. All new licenses and state IDs have a gold star, meaning the state has hit 18 benchmarks designed to improve the integrity and security of its licenses and IDs.
Future steps include storing images of so-called source documents – Social Security cards, passports – needed to get a license and exploring the possibility of using facial recognition software to capture drivers’ biometric data in a database.
“It’s our job to make sure the driver’s license is as secure as possible,” said Neil Schuster, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
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