Technology crisis at the liquor store

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Chris Ludy has heard it all. He’s the “ID Nazi,” the “ID police” – names yelled at him by Indiana University students who’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to use fake IDs at the liquor store he manages a few blocks off campus.

He and his staff at Big Red Liquors use black lights to help them examine holograms on any number of state licenses that come through their doors. They check campus directories to see if students’ addresses match those given on the licenses. And they grill people whose birth dates look doctored _ often keeping the IDs they suspect are fake.

“I’ll ask them what their astrological sign is, just to see how they react,” Ludy says.

Now his store and several others near college campuses in Indiana have added one more tool to foil potential underage drinkers: They’re using scanners that read the bar codes and electronic strips on the back of most states’ driver’s licenses.

The devices are gaining popularity with liquor retailers, police officers and bar owners nationwide as fake IDs get ever-more sophisticated and difficult to spot.

These days, students can order fake IDs from any number of Web sites or from fellow students, usually for $100 or more. Often, the more expensive fakes have holograms on them to make them appear more real.

“As they get better, we need to get better,” says John Livengood, president of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, which has several members testing the scanning devices for this month’s hard-partying college homecoming weekends.

Officials in Florida were among the first to use scanning devices, targeting beach towns that are popular college spring break destinations.

“There are literally thousands of people arrested,” says Major David Myers, commander of the northern region for the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

Myers says most underage drinkers caught with fake IDs are ordered to appear en masse in court the day after they receive their citations. Some pay a fine. Others opt to do community service by doing trash pickup.

“Panama City beach is one of the cleanest beaches in the country after the spring-breakers get done cleaning it up,” Myers quips.

At Indiana University _ ranked by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s “top party schools” _ students wondered how much effect the scanners will really have.

One 20-year-old student whose ID was confiscated at Big Red Liquors last spring said he thought the scanners would be a “discouragement” to some students.

“But it’s not going to help with the overall problem,” says the student, who asked that his name not be used. “As long as the drinking age stands, there will always be underage drinking.”

Several students said having a fake ID was considered almost a rite of passage _ one that could generally get them into a busy bar, if not a liquor store (though some bar owners say they plan to start using scanners, too).

“Most people I know have fake IDs and if they don’t, they know where to get them,” says Trisha Brazelton, a 19-year-old sophomore.

Jordan Conover _ a 22-year-old junior who had a fake ID before he turned 21 _ says he believes there should be more focus on educating students about the dangers of binge drinking, which has claimed the lives of college students across the country.

Even those who use the scanning system concede that it is not, by itself, the perfect solution.

Some retailers note that the scanners sometimes don’t work if a license is bent.

A few states _ Alaska, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Tennessee and New Jersey _ don’t have bar codes on their licenses, though many have plans to add them. Georgia licenses also have coding that can’t be read by most scanners, Myers says.

And already, some who make fake IDs are adding bar codes that actually work in some basic scanners. (The IDLogix devices used in Indiana are tougher to fool because they can detect when the bar code information is not provided in a particular state’s exact format.)

Before they started using the scanners, employees at the 15-store Big Red Liquors chain in Bloomington still confiscated about 100 fakes a year _ some of them downright laughable. One, for example, turned out to be a computer-generated Tennessee look-alike ID stuck atop a hotel key card.

Donna Lattanzio, general manager of the Village Bottle Shoppe liquor stores near Purdue University in West Lafayette, says she’s become very good at spotting fakes. But she’s glad to have the scanners as a backup _ for one, to help her fend off belligerent students who argue that their IDs are real.

“Not today, pal,” she often tells them before sending them on their way. “’Stupid’ is not written on my forehead.”