Tuesday, October 05, 2010
By Elisabeth Ponsot, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday night, Oakland.
Students back to school after summer vacation walk down Forbes Avenue with purpose, making stops at their favorite joints. Some seek out the scene at Hemingway’s Cafe or Peter’s Pub. Others trek off the beaten path to the Garage Door Saloon on Atwood or Bootleggers on Semple.
To the untrained eye, the 18- to 20-year-olds blend in with students of legal drinking age. But not to Dominic Williams.
Mr. Williams, 25, a 6-foot-4-inch former University of Pittsburgh football player, says he can spot a false ID as soon as he sees it.
Seated on a wooden bar stool at the entrance to Peter’s Pub, where he’s been a bouncer for three years, Mr. Williams said that what is harder is sorting out the impostors.
“That’s when the process gets really tricky. If it’s a girl’s sister’s ID, she might be able to produce other forms of ID with the same name as backup.”
One thing is certain: The days of sneaking into a college bar with a homemade or badly altered ID are long gone. Technology has changed the playing field, leading both to increased detection and a booming business in sophisticated IDs. For as little as $50, underage drinkers can purchase authentic-looking IDs, often finding the “manufacturers” of fakes through word of mouth.
If photo identification seems suspect, Mr. Williams relies on questioning and even his cell phone’s 3G connection to determine its authenticity. He may ask the individual when he or she graduated from high school. He will also double check the height listed on the ID to see if it’s accurate, an “obvious red flag.”
As a last resort, he will sometimes pull out his iPhone to look at the individual’s Facebook profile.
“I’ve had instances where the person’s Facebook profile picture comes up, and they’re in the picture with the person whose ID they’re pretending is theirs,” he said.
Mr. Williams also gets help deciphering the real from the counterfeit from a scanner and ultraviolet light mounted on the adjacent wall. The use of extra safeguards is necessary, said Peter’s general manager Nick Pawlenko, because false identification is common.
“We see fake IDs every night, and we’ll get 10 to 20 fakes on a busy night,” he said.
During his seven years at Peter’s, Mr. Pawlenko said that “sophisticated fakes” have become more prevalent, complicating the process of verifying whether an ID is real.
“Some will scan, some have UV decals, so it’s very tough,” he said.
While fake IDs have become more sophisticated, so, too, are the methods to detect them. Scanners read the magnetic strip and bar code found on the reverse side of IDs from all 50 states. UV lighting technology unveils unique signatures from 43 states that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. An ID from the state of Pennsylvania reveals a row of “PA”s under the fluorescent glow.
For bars in prime college territory, there is considerable effort on all sides to keep out underage drinkers. They include not only bouncers and bartenders but also bar managers, college personnel who work in the Oakland area and the Liquor Control Board.
Noticeably missing from the list is the Pittsburgh police, whose officers are “not at all involved,” said narcotics and vice Lt. William Mathias. According to Lt. Mathias, there is “no coordinated effort” on the part of the police to seek out users of fake IDs. However, if an officer responding to a call finds someone has a fake ID, the person will be arrested, he said.
Few of these arrests ever materialize into prosecutions. With the district attorney’s office unlikely to pursue serious charges, “most likely [the offender] will plead to disorderly conduct,” he said.
Lt. Mathias said the enforcement of underage drinking laws is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement. Steve Brison, LCE supervisor and enforcement officer, said that the bureau’s primary focus is to ensure that businesses are complying with liquor laws. He said the LCE does undercover work in Oakland to expose underage drinking and other violations, including the use of a false ID. Individuals caught with fakes receive a nontraffic citation from the bureau, which carries up to a $300 fine and a 90-day driver’s license suspension for a first offense.
Mr. Brison said that the number of false IDs that the LCE confiscates in Oakland is comparable to other areas, but he noted that with the school year under way, “we’re obviously seeing more of them.”
Students who are caught with false IDs off campus are unlikely to incur problems at their school. Kathy Humphrey, the University of Pittsburgh’s vice provost and dean of students, said that instances of students being caught off campus with false identification are “rarely, if ever,” brought to the university’s attention.
Without much outside help, bar owners and managers have primary responsibility for keeping out underage drinkers. If the LCE conducts a raid and finds underage consumers, the business will receive an administrative citation. The case is then heard before an administrative judge who can impose a fine of up to $1,000 and depending on the severity of the infraction, can suspend or revoke the establishment’s liquor license.
The LCE has issued 329 violation letters and 202 warning letters to businesses, as well as 54 criminal complaints and 24 nontraffic citations to individuals in Pittsburgh, according to agency records compiled so far this year.
To avoid fines and other penalties, Peter’s Pub has invested heavily in security. The bar employs three to four security guards on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and pays for a city police officer to remain on duty at the door from 11 p.m. until closing at 2 a.m.
“Our hope is that the police presence will deter people with fakes,” Mr. Pawlenko said.
The staff at Peter’s also is certified by the state Liquor Control Board through its Responsible Alcohol Management Program.
Despite the best efforts of many, students seem undeterred in their quest for a drink. The most rudimentary ploy Mr. Williams has encountered was a group of Pitt football players who tried to use their celebrity to gain entry at the door. Mr. Williams, who looks like he could still play, was not impressed.
“It might work at some of the other bars, but it won’t work with me,” he said.
Adam Jaffe, a 25-year-old Carnegie Mellon graduate student from Atlanta, was allowed in on a recent Thursday — but not without a few hiccups. Mr. Jaffe arrived at the door with a sheepish look, extending his hand to reveal a slightly crumpled piece of paper, a temporary license from the state of Georgia.
“I lost my wallet last weekend when I was visiting friends in Seattle, and I’m waiting on a new ID,” he explained.
After producing other forms of identification, he was allowed in. Later, over a beer with friends, Mr. Jaffe laughed openly about his crude-looking ID.
“Seriously, it looks like I printed it off the Internet or bought it for a dollar on the street.”
Less successful at the door was an international student from Carnegie Mellon University who declined to give her name. Her friends told Mr. Williams that she doesn’t drink and just wanted to sit at their table. Mr Williams was not swayed.
“It’s after 10,” he said, looking down at his watch. “If she doesn’t have ID, she’s not coming in.”