The Fakeout Years


Most of us could easily name Dover and Harrisburg, but the stumbling drunk 18-year-old version of myself who was posed the capital-of-Delaware-question by an inquisitive New York City club bouncer obviously could not. 

I was trying to pass off as 23 with a shitty Delaware fake ID. No, I didn’t get let into the club. Yes, I ruined my friends’ night. Why did I bring up Pennsylvania?

Bouncers and bartenders have every reason to be suspicious of ID validity. Fakes have been around since government-issued IDs first circulated after World War I, but they hit a major surge in 1984 when Mothers Against Drunk Driving influenced the passing of the federal National Minimum Legal Drinking Act, raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 years old in every state. Sure, in Pennsylvania, the drinking age has been 21 since the Prohibition era, but it was incredibly easy to pop over the bridge and enjoy a drink in Jersey or New York, where the drinking age didn’t change until the MLDA forced it to. 

Imagine being 17, waiting patiently for your first legal drink, then finding out you’ll have to wait another three years… 

Fakes were relatively easy to find in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You could basically commit identity theft by using someone else’s real ID, or you could just buy one at some corner store. And the identity theft method never went out of style. Two of my best friends used to share an older cousin’s ID just a few years ago. They don’t look alike. One is Korean and the other is Peruvian. I have no idea how that worked.


Throughout the past 40 years, underage high school and college students have racked up plenty of outrageous counterfeit ID stories. Simon is one of them. The 20-year-old who did not share his last name for privacy reasons has been using a real 23-year-old’s ID for the past six months and has gotten into bars without issue.

“He’s taller. He has a different eye color. He has brown hair. I have blonde hair,” Simon says. “And I don’t know anything from it, like if anyone asked me like a part of that—no clue.” 

In the ‘80s, a true fake ID was created by the classic pre-photoshop method, which involved standing behind a cardboard cut-out of an of-age ID and snapping a Polaroid to send to the copy machine. It was the perfect time to initiate a new business, and the evolving technology has changed the game since then. Nowadays, companies like Old Ironsides Fakes and FakeYourDrank dominate the industry, and they have countless backup websites for when their main sites get taken down. Old Ironsides has seven standby websites linked to its home page. Most people place group orders on the websites through a friend or “some guy.” Fakes go for $50 to $100 each, usually landing in the $80 range, but prices depend on how many people join in a group order: the larger the group, the cheaper the price.

Each member of the order sends in their name, birthday, sex, height, and eye color, as well as a photo of themselves in front of a plain background mimicking a real driver’s ID photo. They’ll then electronically sign their name, and the seller will adjust the year to make each buyer 21 or older.

When ordering from a website, customers typically receive two copies of their fake. That’s if they don’t get scammed—an all too common fate.

“We sent them a bunch of money, and then they sent it back to us after they didn’t get [the fakes] to us,” says Quinn, 20, who did not share his last name for privacy reasons. “So, we ordered it again, and we were supposed to get it in two to three weeks, and it’s like week nine now or something like that, and I don’t think we’re getting them or our money back.”

I won’t lie, I’ve fallen victim to the scam myself. I sent in $80 and was told six weeks later that the IDs were discovered in a mailing center and I was going to jail. My underage panic set in, but it turned out the seller was lying and the worst of it was a major financial loss for a broke college sophomore.

If the IDs do come in, the best of them scan, meaning they trick ID verification technology into thinking they are authentic. While not all bouncers and bartenders scan IDs, most liquor stores employ the technology; systems for checking fakes have gotten stricter through the years. 

Most bartenders know an ID is fake if it is extra flimsy, doesn’t have the proper blue pigmentation, or is from a state that is known to be printed on fakes, like Connecticut. “If it looks like somebody tried to fuck with it beforehand, that’s a dead giveaway,” says Donovan, a bartender at Pubb Webb, a North Philadelphia dive bar. 

Norris Mitchell, 31, a security guard at popular clubs like Voyeur and Woody’s, looks at watermarks, reflective aspects, placement of words, and the quality of the photos to determine the validity of IDs. “Nowadays it gets harder because they have better technology,” Mitchell says. “So, besides the watermarks, sometimes it’s more so how they act that lets you know that they might be a younger age, and then you’ll have to put their ID through an actual super scanner,” a bigger machine behind the bar.

Mitchell uses an IDVisor Smart V2, one model of an ID scanner, when he works at Pubb Webb. It scans the barcode on the back of an ID and immediately gives an “OK” if it is real and a crossed-out circle if it is fake. While it doesn’t work 100% of the time, it provides a pretty strong gauge for those checking. 

About 20% of patrons try to use fake IDs at a typical club, but 80% try it on college campuses, Mitchell says. Maxi’s Pizza, Subs and Bar is the only bar on Temple University’s campus and a major hotspot for fake IDs. Maxi’s security uses an AgeVisor Touch scanner, which stores information about previous fakes to make rejections easier in the future. 

“There is this feature when we have a fake ID, we can tag it,” says Aiden Kuhn, a bouncer at Maxi’s. “You just put their information in there, so if they keep coming back, and they scan that ID again, it will show up as fake. If someone has a dupe and they scan it, it will show up as a dupe.”

People with fake IDs often memorize their fake birth years, addresses, and other inaccurate details on the cards so they can prove their false identities if security questions them (something I should’ve done with my Delaware ID). But they can’t always be prepared for what questions will come up. When 20-year-old Ali, who also did not share his last name, had his fake ID taken from him at Maxi’s he was left speechless, even with the help of his friend Jenk. “The bouncer’s asking, like, what high school did he go to?” Jenk says. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t fucking know,’ and he’s asking all these crazy ass questions, so I’m sitting there trying to look up a high school from where his ID’s from—Maryland—and the bouncer’s just not going.”

Ali got his fake back eventually, but different places have different rules on how to handle fakes, like giving them back or keeping them to display on a wall of underage shame. 


When I went to a club in Center City right before my 21st birthday, I was met with a crooked bouncer. “Venmo me $50 or I’m calling the cops,” he said, holding that old Delaware ID out of my reach. Don’t ask why I kept using it. I begged and pleaded for the ID back and tried to jump for it and run, but ultimately caved to his extortion. I doubt he would’ve called the cops, and he likely would’ve simply discarded the fake, but when police get involved, there can be serious legal consequences.

Since 1988, the punishment for the use of false identification to purchase alcohol carries a minimum fine of $500—10 times the fee I paid. In Pennsylvania, possessing a fake ID is not illegal, but using it to commit fraud makes it a crime. While the act of creating or owning a fraudulent ID shows an intention to defraud in states like Connecticut and can be cause for legal action, which includes a punishment of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000, Pennsylvania law needs explicit action to be considered fraud. 

Bartenders can get in trouble for serving underage drinkers, too, which can lead to some overly cautious decision-making. Sometimes they even reject real IDs.

Anna had been using a fake ID for two and a half years, and they never had a problem getting into clubs or purchasing alcohol despite being underage. 

Then, Anna turned 21—and their birthday bash was crashed by an overly cautious bouncer at Tavern on Camac. “The first time I have ever gotten my ID turned down was on my 21st birthday when I handed the bouncer my real ID for the first time, and it was a vertical Illinois ID with the birthday that day,” says Anna. (Illinois, like Pennsylvania, issues vertical IDs to drivers under 21.)  “And they said, ‘This is fake,’ and I said, ‘Why would I hand you a vertical Illinois ID with the birthday that day if it was fake?’” That logic went nowhere.  

Two weeks later, they went back to Tavern on Camac—and got in.


Will Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.

Stack of fake IDs collected by bouncers at Maxi’s. Photo / Will Kirkpatrick

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