Underage college students use them at bars and liquor stores. International criminals use them to board planes, wire money and avoid detection.
Fake IDs that are nearly impossible to detect are flooding a growing number of bars in Five Points, according to reporting by The State newspaper.
But experts say these high-quality counterfeits are used for far more nefarious purposes.
“It’s a threat to national security,” said Brian Zimmer, president of Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License and Keeping IDentities Safe, both based in Washington, D.C.
“If federal and international law enforcement does not expend more effort to shut down, arrest and penalize high-level counterfeiters, then it undermines not only our domestic flight security, but international flights from whatever origin,” Zimmer added. “It’s an American problem, but it’s actually a worldwide problem.”
Islamic State operatives responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks obtained fake IDs to cross borders and rent housing, Zimmer said.
More than a dozen underage students at the University of South Carolina told The State newspaper that their path to becoming a 21- year-old goes through the China-based company ID God. The company boasts of “high quality IDs at an affordable price” and the chance to “have a great time with your friends!”
ID God is notorious for selling to anyone familiar with the English language, Zimmer said. Attempts to reach ID God for comment were unsuccessful.
All it takes is about $100 and a month of patience before a buyer can receive a fake ID capable of fooling technology specifically designed to detect it. On top of that, they’re REAL ID compliant.
The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005 following the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation, established minimum security standards for accepting state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards, and prohibits federal agencies from accepting IDs that do not meet the standards.
It was designed to make driver’s licenses more secure, said Ian Grossman, vice president of member services with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
"Everyone is relying on these (driver's licenses). That's why states are investing so heavily in making their documents as secure as possible and as hard to counterfeit as possible," Grossman said. "However, the reality is as soon as you put a new security feature into a driver's license ... the counterfeiters are right on your heels."
The Columbia Police Department has encountered more underage drinkers in Five Points in recent years, and now the department is "paying closer attention (to) fake IDs because we know the technology to make them has advanced," public information officer Jennifer Timmons said.
In 2012, members of Congress recognized the issue and came together to shut down one of the more popular Chinese counterfeiting operations at the time — ID Chief.
Two Republicans — Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mark Kirk of Illinois — and two Democrats — Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tom Harkin of Iowa — sent a letter to Ambassador Zhang Yesui of China, citing “grave concern” over the quality and availability of fake IDs from companies such as ID Chief, according to USA Today.
“We remain concerned that high-quality counterfeit identification documents will get into the hands of terrorists that can use them to circumvent our security infrastructure in their plot to harm our country," the letter read in part.
ID Chief was shut down not long after that letter was sent. Attempts to reach those current and former members of Congress were unsuccessful.
But Zimmer said it’s possible the same group reorganized to establish ID God, using the same address for placing orders — firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s kind of like Whack-a-Mole. You shut one down and another one pops up,” said Tony Poole, president of the Document Security Alliance, an organization focused on improving identity documents, as well as their production and issuance, to combat the growth of counterfeiting and illicit activity.
While driver’s licenses are intended to be a credential indicating a person can safely operate a vehicle, they serve a much broader purpose than that, Poole said. And that can open a door to all kinds of problems.
“Counterfeiting aids organized crime and terrorism. It supports child labor and human trafficking, and, quite frankly, it’s illegal and dangerous,” Poole said. “It’s something that we as a nation need to be thinking very carefully about and putting more resources behind to make our documents more secure.”