A lurching line snakes out from the entrance of the Moonshadow Tavern — better known as Moonies — the day before Halloween and the unofficial start to “Halloweekend,” a veritable drunk Christmas for the college student set.
Four bouncers — all men built like football players with sandy crew cuts, some covered in knit beanies to fight against the biting late-October cold — stand guard against the untidy mob of people waiting to gain entry into the depths of one of Ithaca’s most popular bars.
The burly bouncers’ sweatshirts and beanies look out of place next to the women shivering in their skimpy Halloween costumes, handing their drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification over to be checked and scanned. One woman, wearing 6-inch silver heels, a glittering silver maxi skirt with a slit from the floor to the top of her thigh and a flesh colored strapless bra, hands her driver’s license to the bouncer.
Verifying the ID is a two-man job. The first bouncer takes the ID from the woman and carefully examines the front of it, checking that the birth date makes her over 21 and comparing her face to the small DMV-issued picture. Then, apparently satisfied that the ID belongs to her, he flips it over, engulfing the plastic in red light. A flash of green verifies that the ID is real, and it’s ready for phase two.
He passes it directly to the next bouncer, who holds it up next to the woman’s face and snaps a picture on an orange iPhone. The ID is returned to the woman, and she steps to the side, waiting for her friends to pass through the same process. After a minute, her group has reassembled and they venture into the flashing blue lights, bass-heavy music bumping out from the open door.
Brian Falvey, manager of Moonies, said his bar’s identification system is unlike any other in Ithaca and has earned him praise from the Ithaca Police Department.
“Two of my big goals are to keep everybody safe and to make sure everyone’s having a good time, and the key to that is to make sure that all the people that should be getting into the bar are getting into the bar,” Falvey said.
Falvey is a constant presence at the bar, standing by the entrance like an incredibly tall, bearded Willy Wonka. He knows the regulars and greets them as he sees them, slapping palms and exchanging enthusiastic hellos and goodbyes as they head in and out. He explained that what Moonies does right is how carefully they check IDs, with two bouncers looking over each one and scanning it.
The second phase of the process is for Moonies’ own record and liability protection. The key is in the timestamp. The picture says when the customer was there and documents that they presented a convincingly real-looking, over-21 ID.
Falvey said the bouncers at Moonies are all trained to look for common signs of a fake ID, like fish scale-like rippling in the laminated part of the ID or an unconvincing hologram. Senior Colby Locke was a bouncer at Moonies for about two months. He said training to find fakes was one of the first things he did after being hired, and the bouncers are trained by looking at samples of real IDs and fake ones Falvey has confiscated over the years.
“A lot of people with fake IDs, they take them with an iPhone,” Locke said. “If it looks like the person’s face is popping off the ID, usually that’s fake. A lot of people with crappy fake IDs have ripples in it from the plastic or the film they use to put over it doesn’t work very well, so it starts to ripple if water gets in it or something like that.”
Falvey keeps the ID book close at hand, retrieving it from a small metal box next to the door to show it off. He thumbs through it quickly. The book has pictures of current and past drivers’ licenses for every state. It’s integral to the bouncing process, he said.
“[Training bouncers] is a combination of looking at the book, looking at fake IDs,” he said. “It’s definitely a really tricky process.”
IPD Officer Jamie Williamson said certain IDs are easier to fake than others. The new New York drivers’ licenses are very difficult to fake convincingly. The new licenses reportedly have 30 security features, including two laser-engraved black and white photographs, raised date text on a smooth plastic background and a small transparent window in the bottom right corner. Williamson said New York is not the only state to move toward a more difficult to forge identification.
“Most of the states within the last five to 10 years have drastically changed their forms of identification,” Williamson said. “They’ve drastically changed them. They’ve enhanced the security measures on them. Forgers have found it very difficult to reproduce the holograms. It’s very difficult to reproduce that and make it look legitimate, whereas other documents literally just look like credit cards. You just have to print something on one side and it’s good.”
It takes minimal Googling to find places to buy a fake ID. The price is pretty steep — up to $250 for two scannable IDs on one website. Lower-quality IDs that don’t scan sell for as low as $70. Of course, there’s no proof that these websites are legitimate. The money has to be sent upfront, and there’s virtually no way to guarantee the site will actually provide the products they’re promising. One of the most popular and reportedly reliable sites to buy fakes from was ID Chief, which was based in China and was known as the most high-quality place to buy from. However, ID Chief was busted last summer, and while new websites with the ID Chief name and ID Chief quality guarantee have surfaced, it’s unclear whether these are scams or legitimate.
Despite the disbanding of one of the most popular fake ID sites, Williamson said he doesn’t believe there’s been a decrease in the number of fake IDs in Ithaca because many underage students use the ID of a sibling or friend who looks like them and is over 21.
“As long as Cornell [University] and Ithaca College are in the Ithaca community, we’re going to see fake IDs,” Williamson said.
Sarah*, a junior, has gone through six fake IDs since she was a senior in high school and first decided to order one from ID Chief. She has used both completely fraudulent IDs and the legitimate IDs of older friends, but she said she’s had the most luck with the latter because they always scan. Her IDs have been confiscated or lost, and the one she uses now is the fraudulent ID of an older friend which she is “pretty sure” can scan.
The ID is a Maryland driver’s license that is marred with scratches. The picture is clearly not of Sarah, however the face shape and hair color bear perhaps a passable enough resemblance in the dark after a bouncer has been through a long night of checking dozens of other IDs. The signature looks a little too perfect to be real, the even spacing and size possibly indicating that it’s a computer generated font.
It looks a bit homemade, but the real Maryland drivers’ licenses look about as low-tech as the New York ones look technical. Sarah’s isn’t a perfect copy, but she said it usually works fine for her because there are so many different versions of the state IDs. She said she’s never had any trouble getting into bars in Ithaca, but she wouldn’t try to use it at a liquor store.
“It seems like buying alcohol here is a lot harder,” Sarah said. “I think that has a lot to do with how the community is and the whole atmosphere surrounding drugs here.”
She liked the ID she had before better, but that one, which belonged to the older sister of a friend, was confiscated by a police officer at Moonies. She and her friends were waiting to get into the bar on a packed night, and the bouncer told them to wait by the entrance. He was still holding their IDs as a police officer came up and asked to take a look at them. He noticed the pictures on the IDs weren’t of the girls who presented them right away, and called Sarah and her friends over.
Reluctantly, they approached. The officer asked them if the pictures on the IDs were them, and Sarah, panicking, admitted that they weren’t and ran away, fearing that she was about to get into some serious trouble.
However, Williamson said in such a case where the ID was real but belonging to someone else and being used to get into a bar rather than to buy alcohol, it’s unlikely that anything more dramatic than the IDs being confiscated would have happened.
“The police officer would probably just take that ID and destroy it right there. They would cut it up into pieces,” Williamson said. “They would destroy it because you’re not allowed to legally possess it, but you’re not going to get arrested for it.”
Williamson said, in general, if an underage person is caught trying to buy alcohol with a fake ID, they would be charged with a violation of an Alcoholic Beverage Control law. It’s the lowest-level offense. The person would be issued a ticket to appear in an Ithaca city court at a later date. However, if the identification is a real one that has been manipulated so it says the person is over 21, that’s criminal possession of a forged instrument, and a class-D felony in New York.
“If they’re using it to try to get into a bar, it’s a little gray area on whether or not it’s against the law to present an ID to somebody else purporting to be yourself,” Williamson said. “Certainly if you do it to a police officer, it’s a crime. But if they’re trying to purchase alcohol, like at Northside Wine and Spirits or any of the liquor stores, or if they go to a bar and get ID’d by the bartender after they go and order a drink, then that’s a violation of the ABC law in New York State, and the officer would issue a ticket to that person.”
Usually, Falvey said, Moonies won’t call the police if they find a fake ID. Typically he’ll confiscate the ID, show it to the bouncers as an example of a fake one, and give it back.
“I’ve asked the police what they want me to do with them because I work with the police regularly,” Falvey said. “They said that it’s up to me what I want to do with them. I generally return them to the person and just turn them away. I’m not trying to ruin somebody’s good time. I’m trying to keep people safe.”
Whatever the precautions, the system for checking the IDs is imperfect. As Falvey talks and checks IDs, at least three underage students known to the reporter confidently present some form of scannable ID approved by the bouncers and strut into Moonies. It’s certainly not just Moonies that has this problem. Sarah said she has seen underage students get into other bars in Ithaca, noting 2nd Floor Bar in particular. As far as she’s concerned, getting into the bars in Ithaca is easy enough to do, even if a fake ID isn’t the most convincing replica.
“You kind of have to have that swagger when you walk up to someone and give them your ID. You kind of have to appear like you actually are 21 and like you don’t care,” Sarah said. “Looking back, that’s definitely why probably sometimes it didn’t work out … I think it just depends on how you carry yourself.”
Falvey’s aware that underage people slip through the cracks, but he’s checking IDs as carefully as he can.
“It’s an imperfect science, but I do the best of my ability to be diligent in checking IDs,” Falvey said. “My responsibility is called exercising due diligence, it’s just making sure that we’re checking IDs and trying to spot fakes to the best of our ability.”
*Name altered to protect anonymity of source