Made in China: Trading fake IDs

NY Times News Service

Mon, Feb 09, 2015 - Page 15

The small package was wrapped in Chinese newspaper when it arrived, protecting a thin, light-blue jewelry box holding a beaded bracelet. However, the bracelet was cheap. What was important was hidden under a layer of foam: fake driver’s licenses.

The 19-year-old sophomore who ordered the IDs had tired of not being able to go out with his older buddies and had organized the purchase online from China for himself and a few Princeton University friends, using an e-mail address given to him by a friend, who had also gotten it from a friend.

Fake IDs have been a campus accessory since 1984, when the age for buying and public possession of alcohol was set at 21. In today’s global economy, forget resources like an older sibling or Photoshop, students import their IDs.

The number of IDs being imported from China has increased steadily in the last few years, said Bill Rivera, chief of the International Mail Branch at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where officers seize a package almost every day. From October 2013 to September last year, 4,585 Chinese-made counterfeit IDs were intercepted, most headed to college students.

Finding the IDs, which are hidden within a variety of objects, including picture frames and tea sets, requires careful examination as well as common sense, Chicago O’Hare International Airport watch commander Brian Bell said.

What happens when a package is confiscated? Most likely people just lose their money, but it can be forwarded to the US Department of Homeland Security for a “controlled delivery.”

The issue has become so concerning that Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White began a public service campaign on college campuses in October last year, warning of the penalties in Illinois for using fake IDs. In addition to punishments of a suspended driver’s license and fines or community service, students risk identity theft.

People are not only sending ID-pertinent personal information and photos to China — “Keep hair nice and neat,” one supplier advises customers — but also cash, via Western Union Co or MoneyGram.

A Cornell University junior, who organized a purchase for 30 students, said that paying was the scariest part because one is “sending US$1,800 basically down a chute that you cannot ever get it back from.”

A single purchase might cost US$150, but ordering in bulk brings costs down. Some have paid US$50 a pair (customers get two IDs, in case one ends up with a bouncer), plus any markup student organizers tack on for their time and risk. One New York University sophomore, who has put together four orders, charges US$20 to US$40 per person, but had to eat the cost for one order after the e-mail account was shut down.

It is not uncommon for suppliers to change e-mail addresses and Web sites to avoid the authorities.

In a word-of-mouth business like this, customer referrals count.

A subsection of the social networking site Reddit serves as a virtual crossroad for Americans looking to buy fake IDs and counterfeiters advertising their wares. Some even have customer service. The Cornell University student’s package went to the wrong address, and it was replaced. At least one Web site even boasts “three months free replacement” for confiscated IDs.