It can get you aboard an airplane, inside a government building and it allows you to cash a check.
A driver's license does more than get you behind the wheel. In the words of the 9/11 Commission “for a terrorist, an ID can be as important as a weapon.”
In just over two years, tough new federal rules will require all states to confirm an applicant’s legal status, social security number and other information before issuing a driver's license.
But terrorists and criminals unable to produce the necessary documentation to get a valid license will resort to forgeries, fears Brian Zimmer, President of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License.
“People who are living under assumed names or operating under assumed names are going to find out that they are blocked at the driver's license agency from obtaining a valid ID, they will seek out high quality counterfeits,” he said.
In a non-descript building on the outskirts of Washington, DC the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security operates a Forensics Document Lab. The lab plays a crucial role in combating counterfeit licenses. A library of authentic driver's licenses issued by every state and U.S. territory is used to compare presumed counterfeits.
While fakes might look real to the naked eye, once under the microscope they are often easy to detect.
“Some of them are very good, but we are still better at detecting them. We are still better than they are,” Marshall Heeger, Director of the laboratory said.
In the past just about anyone with a home computer and a printer could make a genuine looking counterfeit license. New overt and covert security measures have made the job of a forger more difficult.
As counterfeiting becomes more sophisticated and costly, organized crime is trying to cash in. Earlier this year a gang of alleged counterfeiters making licenses and other documents in 19 U.S. cities and 11 states was arrested by federal authorities.
The gang operated “very much like a corporate office,” said Dawn Nelson, Chief of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations for Identity and Benefit Fraud Unit. Workers were even promoted from within. “They were a very sophisticated organization, but our investigation showed we were able to stay one step ahead of them.”
Nelson warns that using a fake driver's license is a federal felony, whether it is to board an airplane or to buy a beer.
“It’s much easier to get away with a crime when you are committing it in someone else’s name,”said John Giacolone, head of the FBI's New York office for Counterterrorism.