Two months ago, I received an unexpected direct message on Twitter. It was from someone I had never met but vaguely recognized from the University of Michigan Twitter-sphere.
“I think my roommate found your fake,” they wrote. “It kinda sucks btw.”
Said ID was not, in fact, my fake ID. It was my real Michigan driver’s license. It had disappeared somewhere between my apartment and Babs’ Underground Lounge after a night out about two weeks prior. I had been frantically looking for it ever since, tearing through my car, backpack and bedroom on a desperate mission to find it. In the meantime, I endured the humiliation of taking my passport to bars.
I didn’t blame the Twitter stranger for assuming my ID to be fake. My driver’s license photo was exceptionally bad. I looked terrible in it — I had forgotten you were allowed to smile so it looked more like a mugshot than a driver’s license photo, and I was still hungover from the night before. I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking it was taken in a dorm basement with a digital camera from the 1990s. And ever since I turned 21, I’ve been paranoid that my license would be confiscated at Rick’s or the liquor store because there’s something about it that just seems so unconvincing.
But there was something so stereotypically “college student” about that message that it was almost comical. It was a reminder of the absurdity of the fake ID phenomenon; they’re so ubiquitous that any driver’s license found left behind on the street is assumed to be a piece of fraudulent government documentation.
Fake IDs have become almost synonymous with college life since the legal drinking age was raised to 21 from 18 with the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Act in 1984. The law was a bizarre quid-pro-quo that withheld federal funding for highways from states unless they raised the drinking age, meant to circumvent a provision in the 21st Amendment that prohibits the federal government from regulating alcohol. Four years after the National Minimum Drinking Age was passed, all states were compliant and 21 was the de-facto federal age.
Suddenly, 21 became the most important — and in my opinion, most arbitrary — social division on college campuses. Perhaps in recognition of how meaningless the divide really was, students almost immediately began trying to circumvent it with fake IDs. Utter disregard for the law became the norm. In one study published in 1996, 46% of college students admitted to using a fake ID to purchase alcohol.
For the most part, obtaining a fake ID is low risk and high reward. Minors can effectively purchase unlimited access to alcohol, weed or any other illicit substance. And it’s currently easier than ever to get high-quality “novelty IDs” online, usually produced in China, that can be swiped and scanned. Sure, there’s the small risk of it getting confiscated by the bouncer at Charley’s, but chances are you’ll make it past him just fine.
Still, using a fake doesn’t come entirely without risk. Under Michigan law, it’s illegal to “intentionally reproduce, alter, counterfeit, forge, or duplicate an official state identification card or use an official state identification card that has been reproduced, altered, counterfeited, forged or duplicated.”
And using a fake ID to “purchase alcoholic liquor” is punishable by up to 93 days in prison and a $100 fine. Students have been arrested for possession of fraudulent identification before, often when police officers are waiting near the lines going into popular bars. In 2010, immigration agents arrested 2 U-M students and 1 MSU student after intercepting a package with 48 fake IDs arriving from Toronto. Regardless, it still seems like many illicit transactions do proceed everyday and uninterrupted, as students hand their ID to the cashier at Campus Corner, perhaps verifying their “address” or “date of birth,” and go on their way.
Fake IDs are so common that it can be easy to forget the insanity of the concept: Minors have the opportunity to significantly improve their social lives and overall college experiences by committing federal crimes on a weekly basis. This isn’t to say underage drinking is bad or that people should boycott fake IDs; I actually personally support the lowering of the drinking age. Rather, I’d argue that this fake ID phenomenon that’s accompanied by ample, even grave risk is too often taken at face value.
If you don’t have a fake ID, there’s a good chance one of your friends does. One could go as far to say that the never-ending stream of parties, tailgates and smoke sessions that are so integral to campus life stand entirely on an informal network of fraudulent identities. And I think it’s time to confront this network for all it’s worth and all it does for this campus community.
These are the real fake IDs of the University of Michigan.
“I thought I was totally screwed and lost everybody’s money. I was freaking out,” a Ross sophomore explained. The student, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of legal and professional repercussions, will be referred to as Eric.
Eric had placed a mass order of 14 fake IDs for himself and fellow Michigan students. He had meticulously tracked everyone’s information in a spreadsheet and, together, their false personas spanned the entire country — he had ordered “novelty IDs” from Illinois, Connecticut and Colorado, among other states.
The entire process had gone smoothly until it was time to pay. Many forgers offer discounts to customers who pay with Bitcoin, and some of the highest-quality vendors have gone crypto-only. Eager to save a few dollars, Eric transferred the $650 he had collected from his friends into Coinbase, a popular crypto exchange platform.
Then in June, the price of Bitcoin crashed. The hundreds of dollars Eric had collected evaporated.
Eric was able to recoup his funds by exploiting a loophole in Coinbase’s system. “I called Coinbase and told them it was a ‘mistake’ that the money was put there,” he said. “I did some research, and they have some sort of rule where if you don’t do a certain amount of transactions within a certain amount of time, they think that the money was put in there by mistake or your account is inactive, and they give you your money back.”
Eric, thankfully, was able to complete the transaction through Zelle, albeit at a higher cost than if he had paid in Bitcoin. Soon after, Eric’s “novelty” Georgia ID arrived in the mail.
In 2019, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp boasted that his state’s redesigned IDs were “one of the most secure credentials in the nation.” The pastel plastic cards are completed with an image of the state’s signature peaches which have been “laser engraved and are virtually tamper resistant and increase the overall security of the license.”
These enhanced security features clearly didn’t prevent forgers from continuing to sell. And they certainly weren’t enough to prevent Eric from getting into Rick’s.
Jason, a Business and LSA sophomore whose name has also been changed, didn’t have much of a choice about procuring a fake ID.
“I didn’t decide to get it,” he admitted. “My friend just gave me one.” Said friend is a computer-savvy Michigan student who was interested in making fake IDs. He decided to start by practicing on Jason.
Despite the fact that most students pay upwards of $100 for high-quality IDs, Jason felt confident in his fraudulent, albeit-free, credentials. “It scans, and the picture looks good,” he said. “I compared it to a (real) ID from the same state, and it looks very, very good. It’s identical, except for the material that it’s printed on.”
For many students, the decision of whether or not to get a fake ID is mostly about what their friends are doing. Studies have shown that “social drinking motives were significantly associated with drinking behaviors.” The appeal of being able to freely go out with your friends anytime you want is a powerful incentive.
Miles, a recent University alum whose name has also been changed, never had a fake ID and never felt like his social life suffered for it.
“I was more interested in going to frat parties and going to house parties with older classmates. That was something I had in common with a lot of my friends. None of us really felt like we needed to go out to bars or anything,” he explained. Just as some of his friends were beginning to turn 21, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars and restaurants on campus.
After that, the question of whether or not to get a fake ID “just never really came up.”
Overall, it doesn’t matter how good students think their fake ID is. On campus, bouncers, bartenders and cashiers are arbiters of truth.
In 2018, the beloved campus bar ScoreKeepers, colloquially known as ‘Skeeps,’ came close to losing its liquor license after the Ann Arbor Police Department recommended that the Ann Arbor Council Liquor License Review Committee let their license expire. In the previous year, over 80 police reports had been filed at Skeeps, including instances of underage drinking or bouncers failing to ask for identification. Since narrowly holding onto its liquor license in 2018, however, Skeeps has gained a reputation for being strict with IDs.
Thomas, whose name has been changed, has been a bouncer at ScoreKeepers for over a year. “I’m paid pretty well at Skeeps because the owner is super paranoid, super suspicious of IDs,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he’s generally very good at spotting frauds, but admitted that “there are some states that are just so bad, it’s hard to tell the fakes from the real. Like, say Illinois, for example. If I’m not really sure, I’ll take a guess, and I can tell by their reaction.”
Students brag about how “good” their fake IDs are — they’ll flaunt how much they pay to ensure it swipes and scans or point out all the small security features that an ID forger has expertly replicated. But in reality, it’s better to have a good fake from a state with “bad reals.”
Paying top dollar for a good — or bad — fake ID certainly helps students make it past the bouncer, but Thomas says many rejections come down to students’ own errors. He regularly denies IDs where the photos “look like they were dragged and dropped from Photoshop … it clearly looks like they took a photo of themselves from a family photo or vacation photo and then put it on their fake.”
In other cases, bar-goers are unable to answer basic questions about their false personas. “One of my favorite things to do is to test people,” he explained. “I’ll ask, ‘What’s the capital of Pennsylvania,’ and I’ve heard people say ‘Pennsylvania City’ … when you’re bouncing, you find ways to have fun. And how bad or how little effort people put into their fake IDs is just fun to test.”
It seems students understand the absurdity of fake ID culture, even if they participate in it.
Miles said that when he came to campus freshman year, seeing how many students owned fake IDs felt like “a movie trope.” Slowly, though, he began to understand the social and logistical benefits of having one. “I thought it was a little absurd at first, but once I got more into my sophomore year, it made more sense of why people were getting them,” he explained. Miles saw how having a fake ID allowed students to get into bars, purchase alcohol freely and experience a different side of campus — all things that made purchasing one increasingly attractive.
Eric thought that social taboos around drinking pushed students to get fake IDs. “There are other countries where you can drink freely, and there’s not much stigma,” he said. “I feel like because it’s so taboo here, everyone has this big idea that it’s mature to drink at 18 or 19. I think if the U.S. lowered the drinking age to 18, the whole problem would probably go away.”
It’s unlikely that the drinking age will be lowered anytime soon. In the meantime, it seems, students will have no problem printing their own IDs, forging fake identities and finding other ways to make it through the doors of campus bars.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.