NBC Bay Area
Counterfeit documents that are so good, they're fooling law enforcement
You need one to get into a bar. To get on a plane. To buy a gun. To prove you're an American.
A lot of power for a flimsy piece of plastic: We are talking about your ID.
Underage college kids have been buying fake IDs for years, flashing them at grocery stores to purchase alcohol and using them as passes into night clubs.
Now, the counterfeit documents are posing problems for federal law enforcement.
NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found some abuse of that power that federal officials say could be a homeland security threat. Last year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents intercepted and seized some high-quality fake IDs headed for the Bay Area from Hong Kong.
No arrests were made, but agents admit, the IDs were eerily good- indistinguishable from the real thing. We spoke with Anthony Ho, Deputy Special Agent in Charge at Immigration and Customs Enforcement San Francisco office.
"I don't think people understand that when they are ordering one of these counterfeit documents from overseas and bringing it in, they are committing a felony," Agent Ho says, "they are smuggling a document into the United States."
And they're easy to get. Just go online, like you are now.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found half a dozen websites offering high-quality IDs priced between $50 and $500, based in places like Guangzhou, China, Great Britain and Victoria, British Columbia. Some people using them are not even US citizens.
"I have a California ID that uses my real name, but none of my real information," a Canadian 20-year-old who doesn't want to be identified, tells NBC Bay Area, "I have a South Dakota ID that also uses my real name," she says.
One of her IDs came in a package from China, ordered off the internet. "I worry especially that since I'm not an American that it will have more repercussions for me than a typical American student," she says.
While the 20-year-old tells us she uses the ID as a ticket into local bars- which is serious in itself- federal security experts say, a non-US citizen passing herself off as an American, has major homeland security implications for others using the fakes to cause harm.
"The problem of counterfeit drivers' licenses is not a new one, but what makes this one unusual is the high quality of the documents," Agent Ho tells NBC Bay Area Investigative reporter, Stephen Stock.
"How serious is this?" Stock asks.
"With that technology someone could theoretically get past the TSA checkpoint," Agent Ho says, "so we view that as a potential national security threat."
It's already happened. Back in June, Nigerian national Olajide Noibi was caught with 10 different fake boarding passes and IDs on him while trying to board a Delta flight to Atlanta.
He wasn't caught until he had already flown with the fake IDs from New York to Los Angeles. "You could actually use these IDs to get into areas that you might not be able to with a lesser quality ID.
For example, you might be able to get onto an airplane flight, you might be able to get employment," Agent Ho tells NBC Bay Area.
"It got me my job," a Nicaraguan national who wants to remain anonymous, tells Stock.
The man uses a fake ID because he is living in the bay area illegally. "It was the first thing I did when I got here," he says.
That was 9 years ago.
He used the fake ID to get employment and drive a car.
He said police pulled him over once, and did not notice the ID was a fake.
"If I wanted to go get a fake ID could I go out there and get one right now?" Stock asks the Nicaraguan national. "Yeah," he says, "If you want to pass for another person, we could go get one right now, be done in 4 hours."
"Does it worry you that some bad guy might be using a fake ID to get in the country or get on an airplane and hurt people?" Stock asks. "Since 9/11 it's like one of those things you think about," he says, "if it was easy for me why would it not be easy for whoever?"
ICE has set up a forensic document lab in Washington DC to deal with the problem.
At the lab, they intercept and analyze counterfeit documents from around the world.
"Lucky for us, technology works both ways," Agent Ho tells NBC Bay Area, "Not only does it allow for these IDs to be created, but it also allows the Department of Homeland Security to verify these documents ahead of time and intercept them."
ICE also has issued a basic rule for minimum standards for IDs to more easily identify counterfeits.
Do you have a story we should investigate? Contact: TheUnit@NBCBayArea.com