I never imagined that one day I would wire $120 cash to someone in China to buy fake driver's licenses in the name of journalism.
But that's what happened, and the product we received was so authentic, it left local liquor store owners wondering what to do next.
"Wow," said Fred Alverson, the "son" in Jimmy and Son's Liquor Store on Rosewood Drive, as he ran our fake IDs through his scanner on a recent Thursday. "I thought the ID scanner was foolproof, but clearly it's not."
It started in February, when we at The State newspaper began work on a series — Five Point's Identity Crisis — that explored the forces that are reshaping the century-old urban village. Throngs of college-age students are flocking to a growing number of bars in the district, resulting in a lawsuit, a proposed ban and worries that the beloved area is changing for the worse.
College students looking to score alcohol isn't news. But the sheer number of underage students armed with fake IDs that we found in Five Points bars is.
The University of South Carolina has nearly tripled its student population in four decades from about 12,000 in the late 1970s to about 35,000 now. And the majority of students are not old enough to legally drink alcohol. Still, more than a third of USC’s first-year students admitted to drinking in bars and clubs, according to a new USC study.
Every bar in Five Points stations an employee at the door to check IDs. But students say the staff members only glance. And once inside, patrons are free to buy drinks without showing an ID again.
It often doesn't matter if people look like the photo on their ID — I witnessed two women using copies of the same driver’s license, and spoke to several others whose only resemblance to their ID was hair color.
More than a dozen underage USC students told The State newspaper their path to becoming a 21-year-old was through the China-based company, ID God. The company, which did not respond to our requests for comment, boasts of “high quality IDs at an affordable price” and the chance to “have a great time with your friends!” on its website.
So we set out to answer two questions: How easy is it for an underage student to obtain a fake ID, and how hard are they to detect? (Spoiler alert: very easy to obtain and nearly impossible to detect.)
First, we contacted lawyers to make sure buying fake IDs wouldn’t break any laws. As long as we didn't try to use them to enter a bar and the IDs were never in the possession of someone under 21, we were safe, the lawyers said.
Next, we needed people under 21 to show that underage students are able to obtain them. So we went out to USC’s College of Information and Communications and found Denali Culver, 19, and Hannah Slater, 20.
Our photographer Tim Dominick took their pictures according to the ID God's strict guidelines — in front of a white background, at eye level, facing straight at the camera, no zoom and from the waist up. I then ordered two West Virginia IDs (they were among the cheapest) in their name and likeness, with birthdays showing they are both 21.
There are two payment options: Bitcoin and Western Union. And because I know very little about Bitcoin, I went with Western Union.
I was instructed to wire $120 to Shanghai, China, to a person named Selan Wei. That took less than 15 minutes, including the drive from the newsroom. (Although, when told the money was going to China, the Western Union employee asked if I knew whether the transaction could be a scam. I assured her it wasn’t, but truthfully, I wasn’t sure.)
Exactly one month later, I had the package in my possession. Inside, two fake IDs and two duplicates were hidden underneath five pairs of ornate chopsticks.
Culver and Slater both said they know a number of students who have gone through ID God to obtain fake IDs. Once we received our copies at The State, Slater and Culver agreed they would have worked.
"When you look at them, I think they look real," Culver said.
"I definitely think they would have worked in Five Points," Slater said, "just because pretty much everything works in Five Points."
So we put that to the test and took those IDs to nearly a dozen bars in Five Points to see what bouncers thought. We were transparent about what we were doing — these women are underage with fake IDs from China.
The employees of every bar we went to wanted to participate, but the bar owners and managers all said no. One bar owner agreed to participate but later stopped answering my phone calls.
So then I went to liquor stores. Nikhil Kaser, the owner of ABC Store on Garners Ferry Road, said he wouldn't think twice if he were handed these IDs.
"This is really high quality," he said. "They have gotten so advanced that it's so hard to detect which ones are fake and which ones are real."
He ran the IDs through his scanner at the register and they passed the test. The scanner displayed all of the relevant information — name, date of birth and address — and showed both women were 21 years old, as if the IDs were legitimate.
Kaser then pulled out an ID checking guide, a booklet that shows a picture of every ID in the United States and Canada and matched it with West Virginia's.
"There is no way you could ever tell it was a fake," he said. "It matches exactly."
Just like in any industry, technology always advances to the point where people are scrambling to catch up, said Jimmy Alverson, owner of Jimmy and Son's Liquor Store, where the IDs also passed the scanner.
"It's getting harder and harder to detect," he said.
We also went to law enforcement. The Columbia Police Department and the State Law Enforcement Division declined to participate.
Phillip Darnell, master deputy with the Richland County Sheriff Department's traffic safety unit, said fake IDs are "so easy to get."
"It's not like you have to go onto the dark web to find them," he said.
But unlike bars and liquor stores, which scan ID bar codes for verification, the sheriff's department runs IDs through its system using driver's license numbers or names and dates of birth. That checks the information against Department of Motor Vehicle records.
"If it's a fake ID, it's not going to match," Darnell said.
Culver and Slater never had the fake IDs in their possession, and like the responsible journalists we are, we made sure to shred them in the end.