Why fake ID is an American rite of passage

Fake ID

New York is pioneering "unforgeable" driving licences in a bid to clamp down on fake IDs. Will it succeed in a country where generations have relied on false documents to buy alcohol before reaching the legal age of 21?

It is Friday night in a busy Washington DC saloon when the barman meets the eye of 20-year-old Madison Jeffries and tells her: "I'll need to see some ID."

Madison - not her real name - doesn't so much as blink. Calmly, she reaches into her handbag and produces a Florida driving licence that declares she is 21 - old enough, that is, to buy alcohol legally.

The bartender looks carefully at the card. Down to the last detail, it is a well-crafted fake, indistinguishable to a layman from the genuine article.

When Madison's college term began in September, the political science undergraduate handed over $120 (£79) to a fellow student who, in turn, ordered a batch from a friend with a lucrative talent for forgery.

Satisfied, the barman hands back the bogus licence and takes Madison's order.

"It's never been questioned," she says later, sipping her sangria. "I used to have one that was even better, which said I was from Ohio, but I lost it. It fooled a cop in a liquor store once."

Why does the US have a age limit of 21?

  • In 1982 a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving recommended raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21 to prevent road accidents
  • Technically, setting a minimum age for alcohol purchases is a matter for individual states
  • However, since 1984 those which set the cut-off below 21 have been subject to a 10% cut in federal highway funding
  • By 1988, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had the same age limit of 21 for buying alcohol
  • However, some 40 states have exemptions to the limit on religious grounds and/or do not ban minors drinking in their own home

Each weekend, this scene is repeated across the United States. This is a country where binge drinking is widely regarded as synonymous with college life, yet the minimum age for purchasing alcohol is 21 - higher than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

In an attempt to crack down on the practice, New York state has unveiled new driving licences engraved with a "ghost image" that floats in a transparent window and, officials proclaim, is virtually impossible to tamper with or forge.

Similar cards have been issued in Virginia since 2009, and if they prove a success the other 48 states could follow suit. Given that it is virtually impossible to purchase alcohol in the US without being asked for ID, this would make it much harder to convince bar staff or grocery store staff that an under-age purchaser is over 21.

But the sheer prevalence of bogus identity cards like that carried by Madison suggests that efforts to circumvent the authorities' latest tactics are inevitable.

All the evidence suggests that acquiring phony identification is commonplace among huge swaths of otherwise law-abiding young American adults - especially those who have left home for the first time to study at university.

A 2007 University of Missouri study of Midwestern undergraduates found that some 32% of those surveyed owned a fake ID by the end of their second year.

Fake ID

"Possession of fake ID among college students is endemic," says Steven M Jacoby, a Maryland lawyer who each year defends 50 to 80 undergraduates charged with possessing forged identity cards.

Though the law frowns upon using bogus government documents - perpetrators typically risk up to six months in jail, depending on which state they live in - acquiring a fake ID is widely seen as a normal part of growing up.

In the 2007 coming-of-age comedy Superbad, a pivotal scene features the blatantly under-age Fogell, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, attempting to buy copious amounts of liquor with a phony Hawaii driving licence that gives his name, improbably, as McLovin.

Minimum alcohol purchasing ages

  • Germany: 16 for beer and wine, 18 for spirits
  • Netherlands: 16 for drinks below 15% alcohol by volume (ABV), 18 for those above
  • China: 18
  • South Africa: 18
  • UK: 18
  • Canada: 19 (18 in Manitoba , Alberta and Quebec)
  • Norway: 18, but 20 for spirits of 22% ABV
  • India: Varies from 18 to 25 depending on state
  • Japan: 20
  • US: 21

The ordeal is depicted as trial on the path to adulthood - reflecting the US society's contradictory attitudes to under-age drinking.

"Maybe Americans like the illicit part of it - they see that as a rite of passage," says Julia Martinez, professor of psychology at Colgate University, who led the Missouri research.

The law has ensnared a number of high-profile under-age drinkers.

In 2012 Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, was found with false identity documents when she was caught drinking at the age of 20 in New York. Jenna Bush was caught attempting to use fake ID to buy alcohol while under age in 2001, while her father was president. Both received community sentences.

As in the prohibition era, the ban has created a huge, and potentially lucrative, black market.

"Every September and January at the start of term, on every campus you will have a couple of guys from another school come down and set up shop in someone's room with laptop and a laminating machine," says Jacoby.

"They do 100, 200 in a week, and they can be very sophisticated."

Websites - many of them operated abroad - selling "novelty" fake US driving licences proliferate on the internet.

All this creates a market for items which can prove very useful to organised criminals and terrorists. The 9/11 hijackers used fraudulently obtained identity documents to buy airline tickets and sign up to flight schools.

Start Quote

I don't want to spend the night worrying about whether some frat boy has poured cough syrup in my drink”

End Quote 'Madison Jeffries' College student

As a result, Jacoby says, authorities go after those producing fake IDs "like the hounds of hell" and anyone caught manufacturing them can expect to go to prison. In Texas, the maximum sentence is 20 years.

While those caught simply using a phony document to buy alcohol typically escape with a community punishment in Maryland, Jacoby says, it will remain on their record for three years - with potentially serious consequences when they apply for graduate jobs.

Hence the popularity of college fraternities and sororities, where older students often purchase alcohol in bulk for parties and share it with younger members of the society.

Critics warn of the danger of so many young people having their formative experiences of alcohol without the supervision of bar staff and bouncers. Madison says part of the reason she bought her fake ID is that she feels safer drinking in public, in the presence of older adults.

"I don't want to spend the night worrying about whether some frat boy has poured cough syrup in my drink," she says.

However, supporters of the current age limit cite a 2006 study that found those who started drinking as teenagers were five times more likely to abuse alcohol than those who waited until they were 21.

"The age limit will never hold some people back, but I think tightening up the law on fake ID will deter those who are on the fence," says Martinez. "For them, I think it's a worthwhile policy."

Others, like Madison, will continue to run the risk of a criminal record as a kind of initiation ritual into American adulthood.

"I can't wait until my birthday this year," she sighs, and finishes her drink.

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