Fake IDs freely available on Internet, says MSU researcher

Getting access to fake identity cards used to be a challenge, but now all anyone needs is an Internet connection and search engine, according to US researchers.

The team from Michigan State University (MSU) studied 19 different vendors – on both the open and dark web – and were startled to find how easy it was to find counterfeit driver's licenses or passports and even credit card numbers.

“I've asked students in a large introductory class, 'how many of you have a fake ID?' and way too many hands go up,” said Thomas Holt, a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at MSU.

“So, I follow my question up with, 'how many of you bought them online?' and about 20 per cent of those students raise their hands.”

Holt’s team monitored the online market for advertising of these illicit items and, when the ads appeared, took screen captures of the images. They discovered vendors often used specific language to appeal to their audience, such as how using a fake document can enhance customers' lifestyles.

One vendor even sought to pay customers to help pedal product. They would sell a customer affiliate fake Ids at a discounted rate. The affiliate could then charge a higher rate on final sales. The vendor benefited from having a point person on college campuses and other hotspots, increasing the sales potential.

“We were surprised by the quantity of people selling passports and other identity documents," Holt said. “The way that these products were being sold was kind of novel and it mirrored traditional e-commerce sites like Amazon.”

With many counterfeit documents being bought and sold online, it is a challenge for law enforcement to identify these vendors, according to the research, which is published in the journal Deviant Behaviour.

The fake documents found for sale ranged from $5 to $5,000, and the researchers found most transactions are done using bitcoin which is often difficult to trace to a specific person.

“Bitcoin isn't hard to use, conditionally,” according to Holt, who noted there is a bitcoin ATM near MSU's campus.

Holt suggested a possible tactic that could be used by law enforcement to disrupt the criminals’ activities could involve a made-up listing of dummy vendors and the prices of fake IDs on a public website.

Such “competition” might pressure the real criminals into making an online mistake that could alert investigators, he added.

EU passports sought after

Holt and his team learned that while passports were the most common counterfeit document sold online, buyers were not looking for US passports – instead they wanted passports originating from other countries, especially the EU.

This may be an indication that US passports are more difficult to reproduce because of the security measures in place, or that the people producing these fake documents don't have access to legitimate materials to fully copy a US passport, they note.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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