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Faking 21: How bouncers catch fake IDs and underage students get past the rope

Photo illustration by Sarah Squire
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BY DAILY STAFF WRITER

Published September 5, 2011

Editor's note: The Michigan Daily chose to keep the writer anonymous due to the illegal activities the writer participated in and includes in the story.

Sarah Squire/Daily

How real is your fake?

Some imperfections the bouncers are looking for: glue lines; raised edges at the photo; no shadows on the photo background; keys or “authentic” in the hologram; alterations in the state logo; writing on the back; matching signature; height of person; color of card features; blurry text or printing; magnetic strip embedded in the card; uniform font; alterations in the DOB; correct holograms; peeling at the edges; texture and weight; printing details

Insider's Tip: The only ‘t’ on the old Michigan ID that doesn’t have a curve at the bottom is in “Height”

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9 p.m. | The seat of the chair is worn, and I can feel the frayed edges of the leather as my feet hang above the ground. The air is hot and sticky just inside the door.

A few tables are open, and the crowd at the bar is only one person deep. The lights are dimmed, but it doesn’t seem particularly dark. I don’t notice the volume of the other noise in the bar.

“We’re not FBI agents. We’re not supposed to be experts at spotting every little detail in a fake ID,” said Russell Dobson, picking up from where he left off. “Like you said, you can buy some of these IDs from China that look 100 percent authentic, and they’re hard to catch.”

Five minutes earlier on the Thursday of Welcome Week, I walked into Good Time Charley’s and handed Dobson, a bouncer at the popular campus bar on South University Avenue, one of my fake IDs — a driver’s license from Maine that shows I’m 22 and living at an address I never bothered to memorize.

He let me in.

***

It’s 7:30 p.m. in the middle of August. The sun is still up. Almost all the tables outside are filled, seated for dinner, but inside the tables are mostly empty.

Kyle Froelich, the manager at Charley’s known simply as "Fro," towers over me, and even when we’re seated at a table, it’s hard not to feel intimidated — scared even.

But it’s not his height that’s getting to me. Two weeks ago I was here celebrating my 21st birthday. And months before that I was here drinking illegally, handing one of my four IDs to the servers and bouncers at the door after 9 p.m.

Now here I am, sitting down for my first interview, hoping that when I make it to the end I have enough courage to spread my contraband on the table, look each of the gatekeepers to my social life in the eye and tell them: You served alcohol to a minor.

***

Since May 2008, a handful of Ann Arbor restaurants and stores with liquor licenses have been charged with “sale to minor” by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. However, none of these have been at the more popular downtown bars, in which bar entry after 9 p.m. for anyone under the age of 21 is illegal — though some legally allow minors in the bar or restaurant if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

According to Douglas Lewis, the director of Student Legal Services, many students in Ann Arbor caught with fake identification are not turned over to police by the bars.

“A person will be asked for their identification. When they fumble for it, the fake is visible inside of their wallet or purse,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to be buying alcohol, simply possessing (a fake ID) is illegal.”

Using false or another person’s identification to purchase alcohol is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail, a fine no more than $100 or both, according to Sgt. Bob Pfannes of the Ann Arbor Police Department Professional Standards Section.

Students aren’t the only ones at risk. Employees at Ann Arbor bars can be cited with a misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both for the first offense for knowingly allowing the use of false identification.

Additionally, three citations at a single location within one year can result in a suspension of the bar’s liquor license, said Pfannes.

Though the penalty is severe, many bars accept that they can’t catch every fake — and when it comes to the law they don’t have to.

The Michigan Liquor Control Code asks businesses to make a “diligent inquiry” — this is further defined as a “diligent good faith effort” using an official photo ID — to verify the person’s identity and age. While the MLCC provides several resources to help businesses meet this requirement, how bars decide to screen their customers is left up to the owners.

***

In December, I bought my second fake ID. My old one had me turning 27 in February and with all of my friends turning 21 over the next few months I didn’t want to be left out.

At the time, the website www.idchief.com had its “novelty” version of the Pennsylvania driver’s license splashed across the home page as its best product. Swipe, hologram and black light — it all checked out. Matt Dedes, assistant manager at Rick’s American Café on Church Street, heard about an influx of Pennsylvania IDs that were particularly difficult to catch.

“I remember last fall they were starting to come in and then obviously we started to hear word that there were entire sororities ordering them,” he said. “Obviously, we discriminate against Pennsylvania now.”

Ann Arbor bars only have so many ways to determine if an ID is legitimate and not just produced with an expensive printer. Cards with magnetic strips can be swiped through credit card machines, and a real magnetic strip will register in the system and display “invalid card.”

UV lights, also known as black lights, will reveal hidden images in some state identifications — the new Michigan driver’s license carries a bright green print of the cardholder’s photo on the back.

For some of the better fakes, like the ones from Pennsylvania, the bouncers at Rick’s will check the University’s online student directory and compare the date the account was created to the date of birth. An account created within the past two years usually means the student is underage.

With up to 700 IDs passing by the bouncers during a busy night, whoever is working at the door has to stay alert, Dedes said.

“There’s just little things you can look for,” Dedes explained. “If they’re standing outside and kind of discussing stuff, we overhear the chatter. So we’ll throw a signal down to the door guy and say watch for this one here.

“A lot of people come, they’ve already had a few drinks, they don’t realize how far their voice carries I guess.”

***

11:30 p.m. | There is a pad and pen on the hostess stand with four signatures scrawled across.

“I want you to sign your name like you have it signed on this license,” Dobson said while holding the girl’s license.

Dobson and Tim, a former bouncer assisting at the door at Charley's who requested to have his name changed to protect his identity, are sharing one of their techniques for weeding out minors using someone else’s ID. I doubt they usually do this, but it can’t hurt to be extra careful when you are being watched.

“See, that’s a pretty surefire way. That was definitely her signature,” Dobson said.

“You have to really take the time to learn the intricate ways of how the other person signs their name,” Tim explained.

“Then they deserve a drink,” Dobson added.

Dobson and Tim went through a shadowing process as part of their training that included at least two shifts at the door. It didn’t sound like enough, but by the end of the night I feel qualified for the job — at least the screening part of it.

“I actually recognize the provincial driver's licenses from India now because I see them so often,” Dobson said.

For the identification cards he doesn’t recognize, he can consult an ID reference book provided by the state. Every restaurant and bar that serves alcohol is supposed to have one, complete with pictures of the different versions of valid IDs from every state and descriptions of security features to look for. Many of the bars have a separate book with international forms of identification as well.

It comes in handy when someone hands Dobson a driver’s license from Delaware. “A Delaware license, alright, let’s have fun," he says. "Let’s see how legit this Delaware license is.”

He isn’t suspicious; he genuinely doesn’t know what a Delaware license is supposed to look like. If he had seen a couple of them, he might not have noticed the horses missing from the blue area on top.

“I’ve got bad news for you. Whoever sold you this gave you the wrong seals. Have a good night.”

***

Sandwiched between Charley’s and The Blue Leprechaun on South University Avenue is another bar. For someone new to Ann Arbor it doesn’t look that different, but the crowd seated outside is a bit less rowdy than the one down the street.

I had only been to The Brown Jug twice before: once to pick up food and another time to join a bar crawl — I had to meet the rest of the group at the next stop.

Daniel Martinez, one of the bouncers at the Jug, only needs a moment to reject my ID: “This is expired, do you have anything else?”

Luckily, I’m armed with a good excuse, though I doubt the actually-I’m-writing-a-story-for-The-Michigan-Daily routine will work more than a few times.

This is the second place to refuse my real-but-expired ID since I’ve turned 21 — the other was Bar Louie on East Liberty Street.

Martinez is sitting with me at a table by the door watching for anyone who enters. It’s early so there is only one person assigned to the door. It only takes him a couple seconds to scan each card — a hair less than most of the other bouncers I’ve seen.

The process is crisp, clean, systematic — card, 2, 3, card, 2, 3.

He’s looking at the ID, comparing the photo to the person who handed it to him, verifying the birth date and expiration date, but he’s doing something else too. While he reads the information his hand instinctively pulls on the corners of the card so the light catches the holograms, and his finger swipes the back of the card.

If the magnetic strip on the card is real you can’t feel a lip, but the surface has more friction.

Martinez tells me that he turns away about three IDs a week during his three shifts at the door. I know why my friends never text me “Jug tonight?” And my friends aren’t the only ones.

The Jug is known for being a minefield for fakes.

“We don’t take (the ID) away anymore. We give it back,” Martinez said. “People come and complain about it.”

***

Pens, cardboard squares, my dignity — I’m ready.

“Hi, would you like to take an anonymous survey for The Michigan Daily?”

Students standing in line at Charley’s have plenty of time to fill it out.

My recorder is tucked away in my bag — the Daily has a firm policy about never interviewing people under the influence. I still caught pieces of conversations as students waited to enter.

“Rick’s has gotten a lot stricter recently.”

“Is this a sex survey?”

“Skeeps is like swiss cheese.”

“This article is awesome.”

“I was 28 in my ID.”

“Conor O’Neill’s took mine.”

“The Jug took mine.”

“Will this get everyone in trouble?”

***

“Obviously, everyone that comes in has a valid ID. It’s our job to make the best judgment on whether or not it’s fake,” says Ed Evers, Scorekeepers Sportsgrill & Pub manager, as he leans closer across the bar.

“Everyone has a fake ID, especially on a college town,” he said. According to Evers, Skeeps will generally confiscate an ID if the person tries to fight the bar’s decision.

“If they just kind of walk away it’s just like: OK, all right, now we know what to look for, they’ve come in before,” Evers said. “We’ve seen their fake. We were the judge and jury on that.

“So yeah, we’ll just let them walk away with it.”

***

Midnight | The bar is full, the line is to the street and it seems like everyone is drunk.

“Also in a birthday party, 20 bucks there’s always a fake ID, always,” Tim said. “What are the chances at a birthday party the only one in her pack turns 21?

“Usually they’re really annoying because they want special treatment … We see so many a night that we don’t care. I don’t care.”

Dobson is holding up the line now to keep the bar from overflowing. The bargoers can either wait in line or wait at the bar.

“Nope. It’s not real, have a nice night,” Dobson tells one persistent guy, whose threat to call the police falls flat. “Call whoever you want, just step outside while you do it,” Dobson says.

Dobson is forced to step away from his post to try and usher the man on his cell phone outside.

“We run the show in here, and people don’t realize that sometimes,” Tim explains as he steps up to block the line. The next person attempts to pass me their ID, thinking I'm a bouncer and ignoring the scene to their right.

Dobson eventually returns to his spot next to the host stand. He let the guy hold on to his fake.

“The Pennsylvania IDs have all the county names in them. I couldn’t see those," he says." There are tons of fake Pennsylvania IDs going around, so I’d rather err on the side of caution.”

He takes a sip from his water.

***

Ashley’s wants your ID.

That is, if it’s fake.

“We offer our hosts an incentive for catching fakes,” Ashley’s manager Jerome Higgins tells me. “Every fake that they catch they get $5 in pub bucks.

“When we catch one, we keep it,” he adds. “We might get one or two (fake IDs) a week.”

Higgins isn’t too concerned over minors attempting to get into Ashley’s on State Street. He knows the crowd here is a bit older and more mature, not just any student is trying to get in.

“We don’t quiz people on information too often," he said. "If you have a fake and you haven’t bothered memorizing it, well …”

***

“I’d like to think that we’re very thorough and very strict in comparison to other places — no names mentioned.”

The bouncers at Blue Lep will identify and turn back somewhere between 10 to 30 false IDs during a busy night, according to general manager Scott Meinke.

“A lot of what we get with fake IDs are misrepresentations, and those are really the hardest ones to catch because obviously people can change their look pretty easily — hair color, putting on weight or losing weight, cutting their hair.”

Most of the managers and bouncers at the other bars agree. With more than 5,000 students in the senior class alone — most of whom are 21 or older — chances are you can find someone who looks like you or knows someone who does.

Besides the basic structure of your face, height within a few inches and eye color (and even here you just have to remember to claim you are wearing contacts), you can fly under the bouncers’ “diligent inquiry” and into the watering hole of your choice.

Meinke was not eager to sit down with me. After a game of phone tag, a Friday night sitting at the bar waiting to talk to him and what was clearly my greatest weapon in gathering information (all-out begging), I was relieved to get him to sit down with me for a brief interview.

Though it’s my final interview, there are still a few butterflies left. As much as I love Charley’s, Blue Lep is where you can usually find me when I’m on South U.

This is not a man I want to piss off.

I can see a flash of regret in his eyes when I give him the news — his bouncers aren’t doing the job he thought they were. According to Meinke, they have a clear policy: If the ID is expired, bouncers do not accept them.

On the table are the two culprits — two expired IDs from New York. One was given to me by a friend after she turned 21 (it had been her older sister’s in a past life). The other is real. In fact it’s my ID, but today is 37 days past the expiration date and “UNDER 21” is printed in red next to my picture.

He takes a bit longer to respond when I reveal the truth about my real one, but it’s understandable why not only his staff, but most of the nearby bars end up admitting recently expired IDs.

The staff at Charley’s all but ignores the expiration date, and despite what the assistant manager at Rick’s told me, the bouncers seem to follow a different policy.

I think the second ID stings a little more. It’s long past its expiration date, and while I might look similar enough to the photo to pass a round of questioning, my examination at Blue Lep has never included any words besides “ID, please” and “thank you.”

“You’ve used this ID to get in here? Hmm, well — congratulations,” Meinke tells me.

He asks me a few questions about where the ID came from, then admits that he would probably let me in with it as well. “As I said before, misreps are the hardest to get,” he says.

***

12:20 p.m. | Zack Frorenza, another regular bouncer at the door, has stepped in to pinch hit as the line swells. Dobson and Tim are stationed nearby to continue to enforce their brand of Charley’s law.

An AAPD officer steps inside and takes a look around.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one come in,” Frorenza said to me. According to Tim, there was another walkthrough about a month ago.

Waiters rush by the door, pitchers of beer splashing onto the ground. Waitresses hurry to close tabs behind me.

The stream of people doesn’t stop until 1:08 a.m., but the fakes keep coming.

The ID reference book reveals a fake Maryland ID with a seal about double the size it is supposed to be. The owner tells me she got it from Toronto.

After handing off their ID, some people will attempt to recreate the look of their photo — one lifts his hat and flashes a huge smile.

Others automatically hand credit cards over with the photo identification — in most cases this leads to more suspicion.

I remember Dobson telling me earlier, “You can get your friend’s credit card just as easily as you can get their ID.”

One man is prepared, armed with a passport and two credit cards. After receiving his stamp and sliding toward the side of the bar I spot a smile slowly broadening and his friend elbows him in the side.

The security staff isn’t only responsible for scanning IDs. They move about the restaurant guarding against any signs of violence, extreme intoxication or people trying to hop the fence outside.

We catch a girl attempting to enter with the same ID as someone earlier, probably passed over the fence by her friend. Nerves are by far the biggest giveaway. Two IDs take a shaky path into the bouncer’s hands, and more than a few questions are answered with a warble.

Others put on an act, conveniently answering their phones after the handoff or trying to distract the bouncers.

“They immediately turn their head and talk to their friend like I’m not gonna notice,” Dobson said, turning his head in pantomime.

The third glass of the night is nudged off the rail at the bar, shattering in the middle of server thoroughfare.

Frorenza tells someone he can’t accept his ID because it’s expired, despite allowing several vertical IDs signifying under 21 in moments before. “It wasn’t him, but that’s just easier to tell him” he says.

That reminds me of the last time I was denied at Charley’s. The bouncer told me he couldn’t accept my ID because it was expired. When I pressed on about the rejection he added: “I also don’t believe it’s you.”

Come to think of it, I think Dobson turned down my Maine ID the first time I tried to use it.

There is no such thing as a perfect game in this job, but 18 refused IDs is pretty good for one night.


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