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Adventures in ID Land

Sunni Maravillosa

Ever wished you could be someone else? In these trying times, with the thought police worldwide encroaching more and more into individual liberties, and making targets of those whose politics are at odds with theirs, adopting a new identity may not be just a fond wish, but a necessity in order to avoid imperial entanglements. How does one go about getting the paperwork in order to accomplish such a transformation? Turns out the area is full of pitfalls and perils, with no clear or best solution to the problem available.

An individual can go one of two ways in procuring a non-state-issued ID: buying from someone else--usually a business--that produces IDs, or doing it yourself. The Internet has undoubtedly enabled more people to go into the business of "novelty IDs", as they call their products, with the potential of a worldwide market. Concurrently, it has enabled the rapid dissemination of information on how to create realistic IDs for the do-it-yourselfer, which is supposedly doable for anyone with a fairly modern computer system, including a quality printer and scanner.

Novelty ID businesses: The intriguing, the entrapping, and the ridiculous

Most Web sites devoted to selling fake IDs to Americans focus on driver's licenses, and prefer the term "novelty ID". The reason is clear--the term is supposed to disguise the fact that their attempts to look as realistic as possible is to enable the user to circumvent the law in some way. Whether this affords legal protection for the companies or not is unclear; I'm sure it doesn't cause Joe Fed to say, "Oh heck, these are just kids having fun with harmless toys--let's not bother 'em, Jackboot John." It does create amusing ad copy, as various sites brag that their IDs are the most realistic around, while the suggested uses for the IDs include: use by actors to create a more realistic character; to "prove" a trip to some vacation destination; fooling members of the opposite sex; and April Fool's Day jokes. Testimonials allegedly from satisfied customers are similarly goofy. For example, one site I visited had a "testimonial" from a "satisfied customer" stating that he used his fake out-of-state driver's license to show he wasn't a local; his claim was that tourists get better treatment where he lives. Another claimed to have bought them for an alumni group to use, although the purpose wasn't clear.

Plugging the terms "novelty ID" or "fake ID" into a search engine will yield a large return of sites. How to evaluate them all? The most obvious answer is, "With a good deal of skepticism!" Given that the majority of fake ID makers are going after the underage drinking crowd's business, which head-butts squarely against many Americans' puritanical notions of who should be allowed to drink alcohol, the area is an obvious one for jackboots setting up sting operations. Naturally, I don't know which of the numerous sites I visited in researching this article may have been operated by the thought police, but I did use privacy tools while doing that browsing, just in case. I encourage anyone interested in researching the online world of fake IDs to sally forth similarly girded. Because I can't vouch for any of the sites I contacted, I won't include links to them.

I could have tried all the ones that looked promising and reported back on the results, but even if money wasn't a consideration (some of these sites charge very hefty prices for an ID), that still wouldn't tell us what we really want to know. Sure, we'd know some sites not to bother with (ones that took the money and sent nothing, ones that produce crappy or unusable products, or ones with terrible service), but we wouldn't know if any of them were fronts for the thought police or not. And even if they aren't, they could get raided, making your records available to them.

There are many sites out there which claim impeccable records, a long history of trustworthy business and satisfied customers, and the like. Remember, folks, it's the World Wide Web--anyone can put up anything in hopes at least a few people will be dumb or na´ve enough to believe them. They can also create an entire infrastructure designed to maintain that aura of credibility; after all, not many people are going to go to the trouble of visiting the business in person. Therein lies the rub: how do you know who you can trust? Unless you have a trusted friend in the business, it's a crap shoot. Some Web sites look quite professional; others are so poorly constructed that I'd be surprised if anyone ordered from them. Really, if a company claims to be meticulous in its attention to detail in creating its IDs, yet can't bother to spell-check its Web site, would you risk your money on their product?

In my Web browsing on the topic, I came across a site that published brief but detailed reviews of a large number of ID businesses worldwide. Under the US heading was something like, "They are all scams so don't waste your time." Intrigued, I e-mailed the individual, who replied as follows:

I base that statement on the many angry letters I get compaining [sic] that they were ripped off by US sites who took their money and ran. Also, I have visited many newgroups [sic] and the things I read on there were basically the same thing.
He also stated that he'd received a lot of negative comments on a Canadian novelty ID business that claims to do a lot of American business. Again, this may be disinformation geared toward driving business to his company, or those that pay him for positive reviews. Interestingly, when I attempted to go back to his site to verify some information, all that was left was a comment that the site was permanently gone.

If I haven't scared you off of using mail-order and trusting an online business (it was a very curious thing to me that many sites claim to value its customers' privacy, yet none of them were secure sites), CAVEAT EMPTOR!!

If you are still interested in pursuing this route, then be sure to check into a few things before ordering. Many sites show samples of their wares; look at the graphics of what you want to order (or as near to it as you can) carefully. Is it the correct image? (Some sites that offer all 50 states' driver's licenses don't have the current background for Wyoming, for example.) Are all the elements present, and properly placed? While this may not seem all that important--if you're in New Jersey, does it really matter that your Wyoming driver's license is a little off?--it is if you want to use it as your daily ID. You never can tell when a cop might stop you, and know what a WY license should look like, or when you'll be driving in the area. (I am emphasizing WY driver's licenses because that state does not require a Socialist Insecurity Number on it, making it easier to fake successfully. Generating realistic SSNs can be done, but it isn't easy; Loompanics offers some books on the topic.)

Pay attention to what's on the back, too. Many sites don't show the backs, and simply try to assure the potential customer that they're accurate. Others allow the customer to choose from a limited selection of backs. It's important that you know what the back side of the ID you want looks like, so that you can choose the one that is closest to it. If necessary, fork over the extra bucks for holograms, mag strips, and the like--realism is your friend, and if you get a highly realistic ID, it'll repay your financial outlay in increased peace of mind.

Cost is an important consideration, too. It apparently isn't necessarily true that the more expensive the ID, the more realistic it'll be. Some sites will do the hard work for you, then ship the materials for you to assemble. If you aren't practiced at it, you could bungle this step, leaving you with an expensive but unusable ID. If the information on the Web site isn't clear about this or any other aspect of what you'll get for your payment, write and ask. Ask for a sample ID--apparently many companies will honor this request (although again, that doesn't guarantee that what you'll pay for will be similar). Pay attention to what, if any, guarantees they offer. Yes, it's still just words in cyberspace, but legit companies are more likely to be concerned with customer satisfaction and so will have such policies in place. After all, you can't complain to the cops if there are problems. If you do decide to order from a company, follow their ordering instructions carefully, and pay for your merchandise in the most anonymous way possible. Also for your protection, set up a one-time mail drop--using a different name from your legal one and the one on the ID--to receive this package.

Doing it yourself: Possibilities and perils

For those who are put off by the above discussion, and for those who want an ensemble of supporting IDs, the do-it-yourself option may seem to be the most viable one. (While novelty ID businesses do offer other types of ID, generally they're so vague that they won't stand up to LEO or other imperial scrutiny.) If you have a friend who has the equipment and skill, and who offers to make an ID--say, a birth certificate--for you, it still pays to be cautious. Consider just how well you know this friend, and for how long you've known him. The thought police can be quite patient in weaving their nets to catch political opponents, and if you think you're deserving of such attention, be wary of anyone who claims to be willing and able to help you with such items.

For older documents such as birth certificates, the investment of time to research it to get a valid look is important. While you could just slap the desired information into a modern-looking birth certificate, it would likely attract attention, because when they were first issued and for many years thereafter, birth certificates were plain-looking documents. Issuing agencies weren't as concerned about possible forgeries as they are today; hence, unless you're a teen or younger, getting an older look will be less noticeable, and should be easier too. Once it's completed, don't forget to age it.

The most sought-after document for one undergoing an identity transformation is a passport. While I understand it can be done, forging a US passport is painstaking work, and if you're caught, the penalties are severe. Rather than risking that, buying a legitimate passport from another country might be the way to go--but only if you're sitting on a very thick wallet. Many countries will sell citizenship--real citizenship--which confers the right to get a passport from them. Belize offers citizenship for $50,000 for the whole family--a comparative bargain, but still a hefty sum. For about a thousand times that, I hear, you can get Swiss citizenship. Other countries do the same, at various prices. Remember, though, to get these you'll still be using the name by which your first citizenship country tracks you, which makes you easier to find. Still, it may be worth the peace of mind that legitimate papers bring to check around. On the other hand, creating a passport from a little-known (or recently renamed) country--if it can be done fairly realistically--is a cheaper alternative with less risk than forging a better-known one. Several business offer novelty or "cammo" passports, and have been around for a while--PT Shamrock, for example--but again, there's no way to know for sure that you can trust them. And, again, the risk of a raid is still there. Also, these kinds of passports can help when signing a lease or other such paperwork under an assumed identity or in similar circumstances, but should not be used to cross borders--immigration people know what to look for.

If you're inclined to try your hand at doing it yourself--and you should, in my opinion, if you want to do this securely and well--be prepared to shell out some bucks for books, possibly for equipment, and for materials to practice with. Two books worth investing in are Loompanics' How to Make Driver's Licenses and Other ID on Your Home Computer , for $12, and Understanding U.S. Identity Documents, for $27.95. The latter explains the development, use, strengths, and weaknesses of various documents, while the former is a detailed how-to book. Read, learn all you can, and practice before creating your suite of new papers. Then, keep your mouth shut about where you got them!

No doubt about it--with the proliferation of required IDs and transactions for which they're mandatory, the thought police have made it difficult for individuals to exercise their freedom in privacy. While it would be better to do without their papers, the reality is that life can be exceedingly challenging for those who try. The next best thing, while working to delegitimize those who claim the right to our life, time, and body, is to thwart their attempts to corral us as much as possible. Creating alternative identities, with papers to back them up, is a great way to do so. That alone makes it worth the fuss of creating them.

NOTE: Anyone wishing to help fund a more in-depth research piece on this subject is welcome to write to me--under encryption only!--to discuss the details. I use PGP and hushmail encryption. See the editorial staff page for the particulars.

(c) 2000

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