Feds target fake IDs made overseas

April 14, 2011 3:35:59 AM PDT
Even though they involve felonies, fake driver's licenses have never been hotter commodities or easier to obtain.

Whether for a teenager hoping to drink in bars, an illegal immigrant wanting American identification, or a terrorist creating an alias, it is as simple to order a "license to lie" as it is to order a best-selling book or a pair of running shoes.

One slick Internet ad advertises for fake IDs. On Wednesday night, the company, ID Chief, is a major target of federal agents in Chicago trying to stop the surge of illegal, fraudulent driver's licenses bought from Internet vendors overseas, shipped to American buyers.

"They're hiding these [in] jewelry boxes. Peel it back and you can see that you've got a stack of identification cards," said Brian Bell of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "We've got shoes, they were hidden inside of the soles."

Just last weekend in a sprawling international mail center at O'Hare International Airport, agents discovered more than 500 fake driver's licenses, most from China. They were priced at about $100 apiece and were headed to customers in Illinois and the Midwest.

"Parcels arrive here at the mail facility. They'll be dropped on the inspection belt, they'll pass through a radiation portal monitor, they'll pass through an X-ray, where we have officers sitting, monitoring every parcel that goes through, and if an officer identifies something that doesn't look right, an anomaly, something that's suspect, they'll pull it aside," said Bell.

Federal authorities say large numbers of smuggled fake licenses began turning up in January. Since then, X-ray inspection has found nearly 2,000 counterfeit licenses, probably ordered by teenagers preparing for spring break trips to use in bars where you have to be 21 to buy alcohol.

"I have to say, this isn't worth it," said Bell. "I mean, if you wind up with federal charges for distribution, that's going to stick with you for life."

Fake-document makers aren't just filling orders for underage drinkers. Investigators say human traffickers, immigrant smugglers and terrorists are using well-made false identification to cover their tracks.

"If it's easy for college students, it's easy for anybody," said Bell. "You know, what is their intent? Is it to go to a bar, or is it to do harm to people within the United States? And that's a huge concern for us... I mean, conceivably, you may be able to board an aircraft with one of these. And are you really who your document says you are?"

In an effort to slow counterfeiters, 17 years ago Illinois added security holograms to state license cards.

Recently, federal authorities say they have begun finding reproductions of just the holograms, likely imported by U.S.-based counterfeiters.

Federal agents say the sale of those IDs from within the U.S. is much more difficult to stop, especially when you consider that even a child can make them.

Last month, a suburban Chicago youngster posted a YouTube demonstration of how to produce fake IDs on his home computer.

Customs officials are more concerned about high-grade counterfeits and organized foreign operations, but they are also going after buyers in the U.S. Homeland Security is investigating some cases, while other cases are turned over to local prosecutors.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection website