It’s a busy Saturday night at a downtown club. The evening is cool and there’s a whiff of fall in the air. A gaggle of young women in night-club-requisite tight jeans and high heels approaches the club. One of the women is decked out in a tiara and veil. Working the door, Geoff Thompson is ready. “Everybody got their ID?” he asks, looking the group up and down carefully. The first woman approaches with card in hand, Thompson looks deliberately at her face, his eyes only dropping to scan her outstretched card after he knows what he’s looking for in the picture. His eyes run over the card in sequence, jumping from photograph to birth date to the various bits of code, until he’s satisfied they match. When they do, he smiles, ushering her into the club’s din.
The average door staffer at a Halifax nightclub might see thousands of pieces of identification in a night, and has to be able to spot the fake ones quickly. In an era where you can buy fake ID online or create it yourself on your home computer, that’s getting harder to do. “You wouldn’t believe how sophisticated they’re getting,” says Kent MacDonald, director of security operations with Shadow Security and Epic Protection, flipping through a stack of confiscated cards —a fraction of those collected in the last year—in his Argyle Street office. He holds up an Ontario driver’s license that looks almost legitimate—it looks and feels right—but closer examination reveals a missing hologram. The card has been printed on Epson photographic paper and glued together, the defeated young creator still beaming hopefully. “You’ve got to appreciate the craftsmanship,” says MacDonald, laughing, though the cards vary in quality.
On one card, a driver’s license from Prince Edward Island, the photograph has been cut out and replaced, held together at the back with a large maple leaf sticker, while another, from Florida, is a crude colour photocopy. In most examples, the numbers have been altered—eights morphing into zeros, sevens disguising themselves as ones—either by madly scratching at the card’s surface (even running over them in cars) until they are indecipherable, or by making tiny pinpricks in the laminate to create more desirable birth dates. “They’re hoping that if you can’t read it you’ll let them skim by on that,” says MacDonald.
A muscular man in his early 30s who has worked in nightclubs for over 15 years, MacDonald says he sees “tonnes” of fake ID—particularly at back-to-school time. “You get these 18-year-old students who have never been away from home who are experiencing things for the first time and want to go to a nightclub—they want to partake in the back-to-school fun.” MacDonald says the most common type of identification abuse he sees are people trying to pass themselves off as their friends or siblings. The other big one are international students altering their foreign identification cards: “They assume that you don’t know what their ID looks like…but we go over all of that in training.”
MacDonald, along with Jason Spillner, the owner of Shadow Security, teaches courses in Licensed Access Venue Control and Age Verification Training, essentially door staffer training classes, which are offered to all employees (the company has at one time employed as many as 300 casual, 50 part-time and 20 full-time staff). Using simulations and drills—MacDonald calls it “scenario-based training”—the 16-hour course teaches the bouncers-to-be how to spot underage drinkers and how to deal with drunk people, among other things. The trainees look at a lot of fake ID, much of it international.
“You have to be able to do it fast and in a situation where you can’t hear or see well,” says MacDonald, which is why his training sessions often take place in dark rooms with strobe lights and loud music.
Working at a busy downtown nightclub, a door staffer like Thompson may only have a few seconds to examine a card for tampering. The dead giveaways are frayed edges or wrinkled laminate. But when it comes to detecting underage kids passing themselves off as other people, bouncers learn to scrutinize identification cards for specific facial features that can’t be altered. MacDonald trains his people to notice details like earlobes and the distance between the eyes and nose. Next, he’ll ask the wannabe patron a number of specific questions about the information on his card—confirming facts like address and birth date. A suspicious bouncer may then try and stump a kid with a question like “What’s your sign?” Even with liquid courage flowing through his veins, if an underage drinker using fake identification hasn’t done his or her homework, MacDonald says the question will get them every time.
Denis Kierans, a student at Dalhousie University, laughs out loud when he thinks about it. Now 20, Kierans used fake ID regularly so he could “see loud music” in Halifax while he was still underage. “I had everything on the card memorized, and I knew which clubs asked for what. At the Marquee they would ask you for your astrological sign, so I always had it in the back of my head.” Kierans, who is thin with a thick head of red hair, says that getting the identification was easy. An older friend with a similar haircut got himself a new driver’s license, saying he’d lost his. The fact was that he’d sold it to Kierans. “Since we both had long hair, I just kept mine how his was in the picture.”
Always a year and a half younger than everyone else in his grade, the fake ID meant he could keep up with his friends. “It’s a very important thing when you’re 16, 17.” Though Kierans says he would always be nervous in line waiting to be scrutinized by a suspicious doorstaffer, he was usually more concerned about the fact that if he was caught, the friend he got the card from might get into trouble. But it was never a problem. The loaner identification got him in every time.
Shane Parr, head of security for The Dome, The Attic and Cheers agrees that people using other people’s identification is still the biggest problem he sees, especially around the start of the new academic year. The door staff at his clubs, however, are equipped with somewhat notorious card-scanning devices that read—and store—the information contained within each card’s magnetic stripe. The scanners make it virtually impossible to use a fabricated or altered identification card, because if it can’t be successfully swiped—and if the numbers on the scanner don’t match the numbers on the card—it doesn’t count. Fake ID “isn’t really an issue with us…and the cards you buy off the internet aren’t an issue with us. A lot of people know that we use the scanners, so that won’t work.”
For Jennifer Gray, manager of internal communications and social responsibility for the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors is part of her job. She is currently overseeing a new campaign, set to debut in September, which is aimed directly at young people. Based around the slogan, “If we don’t ask, who will?” the posters depict fresh-faced groups of racially diverse teenagers, and promote the fact that NSLC employees, as part of a program called Check 25, are required to ask any customer who looks under 25 years old for identification. Gray says that in 2005, NSLC employees challenged 277,430 customers for valid proof of age and refused service to 14,931 in their retail store network. The back-to-school period is one of the company’s so-called Blitz Weeks, where employees are required to be extra-vigilant. “We know that folks are out and doing their thing,” says Gray, “but when alcohol falls into the wrong hands, we know what happens.” As a result, the stores are also on the lookout for anyone who may be buying alcohol for a minor.
When it comes to using another person’s ID—classifiable as identity theft—Shane Parr says that many people don’t fully consider the consequences. “Ultimately,” he says, “it’s a federal offence. It could ruin the rest of your life.” Possessing fake or forged documentation is a criminal charge, and can result in a permanent criminal record.
Though the fine for underage drinking is $445, most accused aren’t charged. Kent MacDonald says it’s usually up to the door staffer to decide what to do with someone trying to use an identity card which is fake or is not their own.
“Normally,” he says, “they’re just turned away.” But MacDonald acknowledges that “you’re a lot braver when you have a few drinks in you,” and that a lot of people stupidly try to challenge the doorstaff when they’ve been caught, which usually only gets them into more trouble. “If you get busted,” says MacDonald, “the best thing to do is to apologize and walk away.”