By now you know that Dahlia’s Mexican Restaurant, on East 5th Street, lost its liquor license last month after police found more than 40 teenagers sipping the establishment’s famous “monster margaritas” on Jan. 30. Police said none of the minors – one of whom was only 15 – had been asked for ID.
According to Elvis Lantigua, a bartender at Dahlia’s, the restaurant’s policy was “if they look young, we ID them, because, obviously, you ID young people.” Those who looked over 21 weren’t IDed because “this is a restaurant, not a club.” But here’s the thing: even when employees did use iPhone apps to scan IDs, many of the falsified ones registered as authentic.
Since the time of McLovin, fake IDs have been as common on college shopping lists as bedsheets and laundry bags. But the days of buying them in some dimly lit basement shop on St. Marks Place are long gone. These days, incoming freshmen band together to arrange bulk discounts from websites such as IDGod, paying anywhere from $50 to more than $150 for a falsified US driver’s license manufactured in China. Since the mid-2000s, when clubs and bars began equipping their bouncers with scanners, IDs with a convincing hologram that will pass under ultraviolet black light have become the document of choice.
Recently, Bedford + Bowery spoke to several New York University students who said they used fake IDs to get into such notable venues as Le Bain at The Standard, PhD, VIP Room, Tao, Marquee, Gilded Lily, Avenue, 1OAK, Up and Down, The 13th Step, Blind Barber, and Brooklyn’s storied dance club Output, not to mention liquor stores, smoke shops, hookah bars, and restaurants.
For many, it started with their first week of school. Several NYU freshmen recalled getting knocks on their dorm room door from students asking if they’d be interested in getting a group together for a bulk purchase.
“Honestly, in terms of the money, it was so awesome,” said a former on-site contact who organized group sales when she was a freshman at NYU. Now 22, she asked to remain unnamed for fear of exposure. Although she only worked with, by her estimation, six or seven groups of about 20 people each, she said she made anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 over the course of only five months.
A New York City college student who currently handles part of a local fake ID business and asked to remain anonymous said that the hardest part of manufacturing “convincing” IDs is finding a partner who knows how to correctly apply the black light and hologram aspects. The 20-year-old is responsible for the initial steps of the process: the purchase of PVC cards (blank plastic cards that serve as the base of the ID) and following the online guidebook known as the “Ultimate Fake ID Guide” to input the name, photo, new date of birth, and other relevant information submitted by the customer into the template of a given state’s identification card.
The facilitator then sends the information and materials to a partner, who uses a special printer to layer the black light print before employing a complex laminating system to add the hologram. The manufacturers ship the documents securely. Sometimes they come slipped into the flowered cardboard packaging of a set of wooden chopsticks or nestled among playing cards in a deck.
An alternative to lamination is the purchase of hologram stickers, but the stickers carry the risk of being applied improperly. They also can easily gather dirt around the edges, or peel.
While such flaws can be a dead giveaway, not all nightlife employees are trained to spot them. To become a bartender, Lantigua was required to obtain official bartending certification, but he was never instructed explicitly in how to tell if an ID was fake. New York State law also requires bouncers to register, train and be licensed as security guards, but it is unclear whether the courses they take specifically teach how to spot fake documentation.
Bouncers are also routinely duped by international IDs. Like their US counterparts, they often come in the form of driver’s licenses or foreign identification cards. Unlike the American models, however, the means of obtaining them is often housed inside government offices.
Ignacio, an NYU sophomore from the Philippines who asked that his last name be withheld, said a place called Recto Avenue in Manila is notorious for the sale of illegal documents. Forged Filipino licenses cost $20 dollars, sometimes less. “When I went to get my real license, [the Land Transportation Office employees] kept asking me, ‘Do you want to just pay us and we’ll give it to you? You don’t have to take the test and everything,’” the 20-year-old recalled.
Some international students do not even need fake IDs to get by at New York City bars. An 18-year-old NYU freshman admitted, under a promise of anonymity, that she used her real Saudi Arabian identification card to bypass a bouncer at The Standard Biergarten, a popular bar in the Meatpacking District.
“He looked at it and he was like, ‘What does it say?’” said the freshman from Riyadh, whose birthdate is written in the notation of the Islamic calendar. “It says 11-6-1991,” she replied, using the expiration date of the ID (11-6-1441 in Islamic notation) as her birthdate because of the similarity of the numbers. In time, she got nervous about using her legal Saudi Arabian ID for an illicit purpose and joined her schoolmates in purchasing one from IDGod. The fake one has worked across the city in multiple liquor stores and clubs including Pacha, a recently closed electronic dance club in Midtown West that borders the Hudson River.
Among the IDs used by the NYU students we spoke to were forged United Kingdom licenses, fake Mexican identification cards, fake Venezuelan IDs (like Ignacio’s, made in the country’s Institute of Traffic and Land Transportation), fake Austrian ID cards, and fake US driver’s licenses from states including Connecticut, California, Arizona, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Illinois, and South Carolina, among others.
Given that many of those cards scanned electronically, it’s clear why it isn’t enough for bouncers to use machines that read the data encrypted in an ID’s barcode and display it on a screen. William Crowley, a spokesperson for the State Liquor Authority, put it to us this way: “Using an ID scanner does not excuse any licensee (or their employees) under the law, from exercising reasonable diligence otherwise required by the law.” In other words, the licensee is still responsible for making sure the name and photo on the ID match what is scanned and that the ID has not been tampered with – a policy that students today often easily bypass.
“I would guarantee that, when I walked down 18th Street the other night and every bar was fully packed, I would say if you took ten people, at least one of them had a phony ID to get into that bar,” said Joe Oliver, a former NYPD officer who served the borough of Queens for over 30 years. With the rise of the Internet and the availability of equipment like laminating machines for general purchase, Oliver said the fake identification industry is becoming increasingly difficult for authorities to manage.
“You’re talking about you, the college kid who’s coming to New York to try to get into a club to drink,” he said. “That’s one aspect of phony ID. There’s people that obtain completely different identities through fake documents.”
Dahlia’s is currently working with lawyers to get its liquor license back and restore its once healthy business. If successful, Lantigua says the restaurant will get scanners to more effectively proof its customers.
On a recent night at the peak of dinnertime, the place was chillingly empty, with gleaming forks and knives arranged on bare tabletops, longing to be used. Signs detailing happy hour prices called out to no one, a half-full liquor collection stood gathering dust, and the employees confined themselves to the farthest booth in the back, playing cards to see if their luck would once again serve them.