Earlier this month, we discovered that if you leave an airplane boarding pass lying around, someone could pick it up and run its bar code through a scanner to discover information hidden away that wasn't printed on the actual ticket.
To test that discovery out, most people went to a free online bar code scanner from Inlite Research, a company that specializes in making bar codes. The company's VP of marketing, Michael Salzman, was surprised by the traffic bump he got as a result of the boarding pass incident, and more surprised by what people were scanning.
"Don't most people just use digital boarding passes now?" he said. Inlite Research set up the online bar code scanner a few years ago as a marketing demo, hoping it would make people aware of their company and help them improve their technology. I asked Salzman what people usually submit to the scanner when not freaking out over boarding passes.
"Once we set up this free site, we were amazed by how many people were scanning drivers' licenses," he told me. The company was perplexed why so many people would want to scan their IDs, so they looked more closely at the scans and found that approximately two-thirds of the licenses were fake. Their scanner was mostly getting used by underage wannabe drinkers.
"They're getting fake IDs, and I think they're testing to see what it'll say when it's scanned at a bar," said Salzman. The ID might say one thing, but the information embedded in the bar code might be totally different. Bar codes, which have been around since the 1960s, "are a dumb way to package information into an image," Salzman explained. The black and white bars represent different letters and numbers; bar code scanners simply translate the thickness and thinness of the bars into words.
In some cases, the bar code information on the scanned licenses was a dead giveaway that the ID was fake. "Some are just so poorly produced with issue dates after they expire or preposterous birth dates," said Salzman. "The really cheap ones didn't even have unique barcodes. The information in it didn't match the information on the front of the license at all. We'd see the same bar code on 10 different licenses."
To test this theory out, I scanned McLovin's fake one-name license from the movie Superbad, and found that it was completely bunk. The bar code doesn't scan at all.
Inlite did some research, and realized that the fake IDs were mostly coming from companies that looked to be based in China. In some cases, there was even authorship embedded in the barcodes. From the Washington Post:
When the bar code on the back of the phony licenses is scanned, at the very end of the readout appears “by PARTiTek.”
PARTiTek, responding to an e-mail inquiry, acknowledged that the bar code is the company’s but said it doesn’t produce the licenses.
Inlite found that most of the IDs being scanned on its site were being made by a Chinese company that shut down in 2012, after a U.S. senator sent the Chinese ambassador an angry letter about it.
But despite the crackdown, if you Google "fake ID" today, you still get plenty of results. And Inlite still sees fresh fake ID scans coming in to its online scanner—IDs that it stores until its database fills up, should any law enforcement agency be interested.