Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, will be traveling to Beijing next week to discuss security related issues between the United States and China. Sec. Johnson will discuss counterterrorism with his counterparts, and would be wise not to neglect the issue of Chinese ID counterfeiters.
There are hundreds of thousands of fake IDs in circulation today. Many of these have been shipped in from China, hidden in cheap toys and trinkets to avoid detection by customs officials. Most are used by minors to drink, but many are used as gateways to identity crimes – and some are used by violent extremists.
The 9/11 terrorists held more than 30 fraudulent driver’s licenses they used to open bank accounts, evade law enforcement and board aircraft. The 9/11 Commission subsequently warned that terrorists use identity documents “as weapons,” as the al-Qaeda training manual instructs them to. The Burgas Bus bombers held counterfeit Michigan driver’s licenses. The Boston Marathon bomber mastermind had The ID Forger and four other counterfeiting guides on his Amazon wishlist. A recently recovered laptop belonging to an ISIS operative held an instruction guide on moving from country to country with fake IDs, along with a bomb-building manual.
Exacerbating this problem was the Chinese website, IDChief, manufacturing and selling inexpensive, high quality counterfeit U.S. driver’s licenses from inside China, covering more than 20 different state templates. With such cheap and easy access, the flood of these IDs was getting out of control – to the point where law enforcement sources claimed 75 percent of fake IDs in the United States were coming from IDChief. Four senators from both parties took action and sent a letter to the Chinese ambassador asking for the website to be taken down citing the threat to U.S. national security. The bipartisan effort was effective and the site was shut down shortly after, but more ID counterfeiters have sprung up in China, operating with impunity.
IDGod, for example, sells even higher quality IDs than IDChief did for around the same price. It advertises sales, specials and new products publicly on internet forums. Its stealth, a term of art for how the IDs are hidden in packaging, is nearly undetectable. Its feature product, the Connecticut driver’s license, has effectively replicated even the oak tree watermark, one of the most relied upon security features for ID checkers.
The ease of access to these documents is clear, but the widespread proliferation is difficult to gauge. From October 2013 to September 2014, 4,585 counterfeits IDs originating from China were intercepted at Kennedy International Airport. While more Chinese counterfeits are seized every month, many simply slip through. The counterfeit Connecticut license has become so popular that some stores, including some Giant grocery stores, have initiated policies requiring secondary identification when presented with Connecticut IDs. To make matters worse, these Chinese companies also victimize the customers, harvesting their pictures and personal data and selling it to identity thieves.
Driver’s licenses are the preferred form of identification in the United States. Driver’s licenses are used for a whole host of purposes, including opening a bank account, obtaining a U.S. passport, boarding an airplane and verifying identity for employment. Much of our daily lives depend on the validity of these documents. The secretary of homeland security needs to engage the Chinese on this issue, because the driver’s license is fundamental to our security infrastructure. While Chinese companies are flooding our borders with these counterfeits, that infrastructure is in danger of crumbling.
Max Bluestein, the subject of a recent WJW “You Should Know” profile, is the director of research at the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License.