Days before his graduation from the College of Charleston, Grant Monahan plopped a case of Bud Light onto the counter of a convenience store near campus and turned over his driver’s license.
The College of Charleston police won’t release incident reports about students’ fake IDs because of a federal probe into the counterfeiters who made them, school attorney Kathryn Bender said.Responding to a request under the state Freedom of Information Act, Bender said the disclosure could foil a U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigation. Agents continue to investigate the case, but their work at the college is finished.The FOIA allows a police force to claim an exemption if it can show that the release would hinder its own prospective action. But Bender cited only the federal investigation that led to the bust of a fake ID ring in Virginia.“It is not relevant that such investigation has moved out of South Carolina,” she said. “We also believe that release of the documents would harm the college’s relationship with its sister law enforcement agencies such as Homeland Security.”School spokesman Mike Robertson had denied that the documents even existed until The Post and Courier challenged his contention.Bill Rogers, president of the S.C. Press Association, said a federal investigation is “not a legal reason” for withholding documents at the state level.“If something would really hinder their investigation, they would have to redact that and release the rest,” Rogers said. “The law requires them to do that.”Andrew Knapp
“Is this a good ID?” the clerk asked.
The 22-year-old scoffed at the inquiry, but not long ago, Monahan was one of many students using fake identification to buy alcohol.
College-age people like Monahan can order fake driver’s licenses online for about $100 each. Websites advertise them as novelty items, but as technology advances, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what some people consider a joke from the real thing.
Even a police officer who once stopped Monahan couldn’t tell that his wasn’t real.
“It was easy to get away with,” Monahan said. “Now you can just go online and get two copies mailed to you.”
Federal authorities pointed to the College of Charleston as the catalyst for an investigation that toppled one of the most lucrative and sophisticated counterfeiting operations in recent memory.
It started late last year after campus police officers seized 100 to 150 IDs that students said they bought. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents traced them to a printing operation that students knew as “Novel Designs” in Charlottesville, Va.
A raid last week produced wads of cash, high-dollar cars and military-style rifles. Three people were arrested.
A good chunk of their business came from College of Charleston students, federal officials said, about 300 of 4,000 total orders during the past year. Most of the orders nationwide were delivered to addresses on or near college campuses.
“I don’t think we are quite aware of how big it was,” said Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlottesville, which is prosecuting the case. “It certainly was a large operation.”
Students learned of the service through word of mouth. They ordered through email, paid by mail and got their new licenses a week later.
College officials acknowledged tipping off federal authorities that the fakes could be a part of something bigger, but they refused to release any documentation. ICE took the case in December.
“They thought something fishy was going on,” said Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman. “We were able to determine the source.”
In January, agents trained cameras on the Charlottesville post office box where students sent orders. They followed people who opened the box to a $1.3 million, 5,000-square-foot rental house.
Undercover agents capped the probe by ordering an ID of their own and raiding the home Monday. They confiscated $200,000 in cash, firearms and printing equipment in a “fortified” room, as well as a new Cadillac SRX and a Land Rover Range Rover.
Alan McNeil Jones and Kelly Erin McPhee, both 31, were arrested on charges of wire and mail fraud.
Mark G. Bernardo, 26, who faces related charges, told investigators that Jones had hired him to help and that he made enough to pay cash for a $50,000 Cadillac.
‘Any college town’
The black market for IDs started in 1984, when Congress lifted the drinking age from 18 to 21. The fakes were easy to spot at first, but computer technology changed that in the 1990s.
States employed holograms and magnetic strips to deter copycats, but counterfeiters mimicked those features too.
IDChief.info became one of the most widely known websites, offering two cards for $250. Customers are asked to photograph themselves and their signature, then send the pictures by email.
Lt. Sterling Dutton of the Charleston Police Department’s special investigations unit said anyone with a good computer, printer, scanner and the know-how can make them. There’s no single telltale sign of a fake ID, Dutton said.
“They say it’s just for a gag,” he said. “But the quality is very good. You really have to know what you’re looking for.”
In January, city officers ticketed 11 young men and women, including students from the College of Charleston, and confiscated five fake IDs at La Hacienda on King Street.
An 18-year-old College of Charleston student was arrested in February as he walked with friends on Pitt Street and drank from a cup of Red Bull and vodka. Another young man in the group was ticketed for using a fake ID to buy four 40-ounce bottles of Budweiser at a nearby grocery store, a report stated.
From the police reports provided, it’s impossible to say whether those cases involved the Virginia counterfeits. The 18-year-old student, Jacob Robert Borenstein, is from Charlottesville, but he promptly ended a phone interview when asked about a link.
“I don’t think fake IDs are a big issue (in Charleston),” Borenstein said. “It can happen in any college town.”
When Marlene Aydlette was younger, the recent College of Charleston graduate knew which downtown watering holes were “freshman bars” that turned a blind eye to underage drinking. Aydlette recalled paying $75 for a “novelty” ID from an online dealer.
“It’s so easy, it’s scary,” said Aydlette, now 21. “But I lost the novelty one because a bar doorman took it.”
Aydlette recently accompanied a friend on a beer run to the 2 Brothers convenience store at Pitt and Wentworth streets.
Store owner Hamdi Saadeh pointed to a sign under his register that lists the penalties for using a fake ID.
“I try to scare these kids because I have two college kids of my own,” he said. “I tell them that the undercover police are outside, and I give them a chance to put the beer back.”
Many times, he said, his threats work, and he doesn’t see the students again until they are 21.