Nora is anxiously awaiting a package. She is lying on her bed in her suite when she finally gets the USPS delivery notice on her iPhone. After class that afternoon, she picks up a bulky envelope from the Yale post office. Two of her friends are already waiting for her back in the suite. They eye the package impatiently.
“Moment of truth,” one of them says.
Nora rips open the pouch and removes a small, lilac box tied with pale purple ribbon. She flips off the top to reveal a dinky beaded bracelet.
“It’s not really my aesthetic,” she jokes, and tosses it on the couch. She removes the thin layer of foam on which the bracelet had rested. Underneath, a small packet wrapped in paper is taped down to the base.
She wrestles the packet free and unwraps the paper, revealing a stack of six pairs of South Carolina driver’s licenses. She locates the pair meant for her.
“Wow—these look legit,” she says, inspecting the scanning strip on the back and flicking the card’s holographic face in and out of the light. She splays the other ten cards out on the table so her friends can pick out their likenesses. Sitting down on her couch, she grabs her laptop and pulls up an image of a state-issued South Carolina ID. Everything—the color and font scheme, the picture placements, the ZIP code format—matches perfectly. The personal information and photo match those on her ID from her home state. The name on the South Carolina card, however, is a pseudonym, and two years have been subtracted from her date of birth. On her real driver’s license, Nora is twenty. Nora from Columbia, South Carolina, is twenty-one.
She searches her new address on Google, trying to memorize where it is on a map. A housing appraisal pops up on Zillow.
“Ninety-two thousand dollars—I’m a broke bitch!” she laughs.
Three weeks prior, Nora had visited the Western Union kiosk at the Walgreens on York Street and transferred six hundred dollars—plus a fourteen-dollar fee—to an account in Guangzhou, China. She and five other friends had already submitted their personal information, along with photos taken against a white wall in a college basement, to a website recommended by a freshman acquaintance. The order had taken longer than the eighteen-day shipping time listed on the site, but the product did not disappoint.
“I want to try it tonight!” she said, dismissing her friends’ grousing about their approaching final exams.
Later that evening, I accompany Nora to Barracuda, a Latin-inspired bar on the corner of Chapel and Elm. We settle in at a booth, and Nora flags down a waitress to take her order.
“Can I see your ID?” she asks nicely. Nora slides her South Carolina driver’s license across the table. The waitress gives the card a quick once-over and hands it back.
A few minutes later, she returns with a mango-infused mojito. As she turns away, Nora cracks a smile.
* * *
Of all the illicit activity on campus, the use of fake IDs is probably among the most prevalent and least scrutinized. According to a survey conducted by the Dean’s Office in the 2011–’12 academic year, Yale students drink more than the average American college student. But there’s an astonishing lack of people—university-employed or otherwise—telling us that buying false identification might be a bad idea. We never receive any administrative emails about fake IDs, and as a Branford freshman counselor told me, they are not a required topic for Freshman Orientation and fro-co meetings.
I wanted to understand why the phenomenon of fake IDs is being ignored in the Yale–New Haven community, and to better grasp the impacts of a tacit culture of acceptance. At the beginning of February 2015, I began sending a Google survey to students in three randomly selected residential colleges: Morse, Pierson, and Saybrook. I asked fifteen questions that ranged from whether students had ever purchased a fake, to the price they paid and how they got it, to whether they had ever faced disciplinary action for using one. Over the course of two months, I emailed the survey to 1,078 students, allowing participants to remain anonymous if they chose. My goal was not to get dead-accurate statistics, but rather a general understanding of fakes at Yale.
Of the 230 students who responded to my survey, eighty-four, or approximately thirty-seven percent, reported that they had purchased a fake ID, a figure that was relatively consistent across the three colleges. The majority of respondents acquired their IDs during their freshman year or, in about a third of cases, while they were still in high school. Roughly a quarter purchased them on websites in the same way Nora did. Many students organized bulk orders among their friends or Greek organizations in order to take advantage of online discounts.
Students pay a wide range of prices for fake IDs, some shelling out as little as twenty dollars or as much as 160 for a pair, in case one gets lost or taken by a bouncer. But the price that Nora paid was consistent with what most people spend for a quality card—properly laminated so that it doesn’t look or feel flimsy, outfitted with a convincing hologram and a data strip that will scan reliably at clubs and liquor stores that are strict about checking for minors.
In addition to online sources, many students said that they acquired their IDs through friends who did not go to Yale, or “other” sources—often older friends or siblings who passed on their IDs after turning twenty-one. Thirty-five percent, however, reported that they obtained one from another student. Several sources identified a Yale student who acted as an intermediary for them two years ago, relaying orders to a dealer in New York and ferrying fake IDs back to Yale in exchange for a small commission.
I interviewed thirteen students and survey respondents to get a sense of how the Yale–New Haven community participates in this increasingly sophisticated marketplace. Those conversations made clear that a culture of permissibility at every disciplinary level has afforded the Yale student body a cavalier, if naïve, disregard for the law. Yale students routinely put themselves in positions that could theoretically land them in jail, and they often do so with surprisingly little forethought. These interviews also revealed a story of larger dysfunction, about how slippery fault becomes when it belongs to everyone and no one, and of what can go wrong when you only have to pass for twenty-one to drink in the state of Connecticut.
* * *
“Most people don’t buy fakes to buy alcohol,” Amelia, a junior, said. “Most people buy fakes to access spaces.”
As students get older, the social scene can shift from dorm parties to off-campus bars. For people under twenty-one who want to branch out from the archetypal college party scene of keg stands and beer pong, the options can be limiting without a fake ID. While twenty-seven percent of those who responded to my questionnaire said that they used their fake IDs most often at liquor stores, the majority of respondents—sixty-five percent—used them to enter bars and clubs.
Jane, a member of a sorority, bought a fake ID in part because of the social exclusion she says is created by the drinking age.
“At [sorority] formal, there will be a twenty-one-plus area, and a lot of my friends are going to be in that area, and I want to be able to hang out with them at my event … that I paid for,” she said. “There’s an unnecessary divide in a social scene where I’m not allowed to hang out with my older friends.”
Katie, who has a late August birthday, expressed similar frustrations and discussed buying a fake ID while interning in Manhattan last summer, even though she rarely drank. Like Jane, Katie felt that the social freedom that comes with a fake ID was more important than access to alcohol itself.
But while there are easier, more prudent ways of getting alcohol at Yale than purchasing it in a store, there is also a sense that a fake ID gives people more control over what they drink. Nora, for example, has every intention of using her fake ID at liquor stores.
At a frat party, she’s at the mercy of whoever is pouring drinks, she explained, “whereas if it’s my bottle of [Grey] Goose, I know where it came from.”
Nora made another common claim: drinking in designated public spaces tends to be less conducive to binge drinking, as bartenders are trained to recognize when customers are too intoxicated. “When you drink at a frat,” Nora said, “there’s no one who’s going to say, ‘No, you’ve had too much, go home.’” While there are sometimes Communication and Consent Educators and friendly bystanders at college parties, the risk of unmonitored drinking is higher.
But there’s also a more defiant element behind students’ eagerness to obtain fakes, an implicit belief that the law is simply not worth observing. Underlying students’ commentary was a blatant contempt for the drinking age.
“I think we’re a little bit backwards,” Nora said of the United States, comparing its drinking age with that of Israel and European countries. “Obviously, I don’t think 15-, 16-year-olds, should be drinking. But I’m an adult. I’ve worked, I’m experiencing some semblance of the real world … I can legally drive a car—I can kill someone with a car if I’m not careful,” she said. “I’m an adult in every aspect of my life.”
John, who acquired his ID in high school, views the drinking age the same way. “It feels stupid,” he said. “It feels inane.”
Regardless of where and how they planned to use them, many students bought fake IDs simply as a logical extension of the existing culture.
“We’re already drinking, whether in [dorm] rooms or restaurants and bars,” Nora said. “It’s still happening. It’s constantly a game of remembering where will serve us. I can acquire booze already, so I just don’t want to play that game anymore.”
* * *
Now is probably the time for a disclaimer: I don’t own a fake ID, nor have I ever seriously considered buying one. I’d like to say it’s because I’m a highly principled person, but more realistically it’s because I’ve never been very good at lying. There were certainly Friday nights during my freshman year when, pint of Ben & Jerry’s in hand, I wished I could have been at a chic bar with my upperclassmen friends, but it was always the nebulous legal implications of buying a fake ID, and not the moral ones, that gave me pause.
As it turns out, many Yale students don’t see ownership of a fake ID as a moral lapse either. Of the 146 people in my survey who did not own fakes, only four said that a respect for the law or moral principle was their reason for not buying one.
“I don’t like breaking rules. I don’t even download illegal movies,” said one student who owns a fake. “But it’s so normal here for people to have fake IDs that it just feels like there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, though, denying that the law carries any moral weight is still quite different from actively defying legal authority. When I first started interviewing Yale students, I thought that the insouciance with which they skirt the law was perhaps rooted in a sense that going to Yale, or more generally being in a college town, offers them protection. Financial resources must also play into that sense of entitlement, because while most Yale students have little patience for what they perceive as draconian drinking laws, not all of them can afford to break them. And when certain strains of false licenses begin to group themselves into distinct brands, peppering the campus like designer sunglasses, fake ID ownership can sometimes seem like the exclusive province of the wealthy.
But while it would have been easy after talking to these students to reduce fake ID ownership to the cliché of Ivy-League entitlement, that explanation fails to account for the scope of what appears to be a nationwide issue. A 2007 study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors showed that at a large, unnamed Midwestern state university, thirty-two percent of the student body possessed a fake ID by their sophomore spring, suggesting that Yale is by no means unique.
Most students’ disregard for the legal consequences of owning a fake was due not so much to complacency as to ignorance. Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents who lacked a fake ID cited a fear of legal or administrative repercussions as their reason for not buying one. But of the thirteen students I interviewed, only John had fully researched the potential consequences before purchasing his. Though some said that they probably should have looked into it more, most students blithely acknowledged that their understanding of the issue originated largely from hearsay. One student said she had “no idea” what the legal fallout of owning a fake could be.
According to Seth Garbarsky, a Connecticut state attorney, flouting the Connecticut Liquor Control Act with a fake ID normally constitutes a low-class misdemeanor, for which the potential maximum sentence is a five-hundred-dollar fine and thirty days of jail time. Few students are aware of these potential consequences, but perhaps the absence of a collective understanding about how fake ID use is punished confirms that such understanding is unnecessary. Of the eighty-four students who admitted having fake IDs in my survey, only three reported getting in any kind of trouble beyond refusal of entry or sale.
For instance, Carmen was drinking margaritas at Viva Zapata, a Mexican eatery, her freshman year when New Haven police raided the restaurant. When an officer demanded to see her ID, Carmen panicked and handed over her fake, a Rhode Island license she had purchased through a student intermediary. The officer could tell that the card, which lacked the convincing hologram of more expensive IDs, wasn’t real, but she was generous: Carmen admitted that it was counterfeit, and in the end the officer only charged her for underage drinking—an infraction, not a misdemeanor.
Carmen was offered the option of paying a fine of under two hundred dollars and having the charge remain on her driving record, or doing community service. Even though she doesn’t have an American driver’s license, since she is an international student, she wanted to ensure that any charges were dropped. She hired a lawyer who secured her twenty hours of community service, which she fulfilled at a nearby soup kitchen over the course of three months. She never had to appear in court, and she never told her parents.
William F. Dow III, the lawyer Carmen hired, gets five to ten such cases every year, the majority of which involve Yale students. Dow said that arrangements like Carmen’s are typical.
“[Students] are given a citation, and they either pay a fine, or oftentimes if the prosecutor is generous, he or she will allow them to perform hours of community service in exchange for dropping the case,” Dow said.
Garbarsky told me that the charges in fake ID cases are up to the discretion of the prosecutor. Why, then, isn’t the punishment more severe?
“It’s because it’s a nuisance crime,” Dow said. “The participants tend to be young, and unless there are extreme circumstances, it’s a recognition of the realities of life.” In most cases, prosecutors are willing to accept a “reasonable” amount of community service—anywhere from ten to forty hours.
Some people I interviewed were concerned that the consequences could be worse for international students like Carmen, who could be thought of as impersonating an American citizen. But Jeffrey Alker Meyer, a federal court judge for the state of Connecticut, said that it is “very unlikely” that federal prosecutors would charge a college student who used a fake in the way Camen did. When I asked Dow whether student cases could escalate, he told me that I was making too big of a deal. “Underage kids drinking [is the crime], O.K.?”
So, as with underage drinking itself, it seems that students can afford to be ignorant about fake ID laws because they are so rarely relevant. In cases where New Haven police are not involved, Yale also tends to be permissive. In the 2011–’12 academic year, Yale Police found fourteen undergraduates who had purchased alcohol with a fake ID at liquor stores or used one to gain access to Toad’s Place. In all but one case (in which the student had a previous disciplinary history), the only punishment was confiscation of the ID and a reprimand—the administrative equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
Jane, who purchased her fake ID in high school, was caught at the beginning of freshman year as she was exiting a liquor store with a bottle of wine. Both her infraction and her misdemeanor charges were dropped after she completed twenty-five hours of community service. Unlike Carmen, though, Jane was caught by Yale Police officers, and as a result was required to sit before Yale’s Executive Committee. She said that the disposition, in which she was pointedly questioned about how her parents raised her to approach alcohol and whether she intended to drink again before she was twenty-one, proved more intimidating than her court hearing.
“They definitely try and scare you,” she said of the disciplinary process. “But you’re not going to get suspended. They recognize that there are enough people here [with fakes] that it’s not worth completely screwing over someone’s future because of it.”
Jane was also assigned to talk at Yale–New Haven Hospital with an alcohol counselor, who stopped their meetings after a preliminary session and follow-up. Jane said she thought the counseling was simply a way for Yale to cover its bases. (Pamela George, the secretary of the Executive Committee, could not be reached for comment over email, and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway declined to be interviewed.)
Two students I interviewed mentioned cases that didn’t involve Yale Police and so didn’t even reach the Executive Committee. Instead, the students were given a lecture by their residential college dean. Both Jane and Carmen still use the fake IDs of other students who look like them to get into clubs from time to time, though they say they do so with more anxiety.
Perhaps Yalies would be more clued-in to the mild punitive repercussions of having a fake ID if more students had to sit in front of the Executive Committee or hire a lawyer, as Jane and Carmen did. Getting caught, however, appears to be a rare occurrence: only eighteen percent said that their IDs hadn’t worked on more than one occasion. Garbarsky told me that this may be because fake IDs have become more sophisticated since 2002, when he started working in a lower court that prosecuted their use. At the time, nine out of ten of his cases involved cards that had been doctored with Wite-Out.
C.P., a bouncer I talked to at Kelly’s Bar on Crown Street, confirmed that it’s become more difficult to spot illegitimate licenses. He said that while some fake IDs are obvious, many have the same technology scanning machines and ultraviolet lights screen for.
“These IDs fool the police,” he said. “A trained eye is really your best bet … but nobody can be a hundred percent with it, I don’t think. Not at all.”
Like other bouncers I talked to, C.P. seemed to have a defeatist attitude about underage drinking. While he used to keep an ultraviolet light on hand to check for holograms, he stopped after the batteries ran out. He also admitted that he’s sympathetic to underclassmen who might feel excluded—he used to borrow his older brother’s ID to get into clubs when he was younger—and thinks that the drinking age should be eighteen. So when he does spot fakes, he just gives them back.
“What could you do?” he said. Theoretically, he could call the police. But he doesn’t.
BAR Pizza, another local restaurant, makes an earnest effort to combat fake ID use, but with a similarly soft hand. Dan Brodoff, BAR’s manager, told me that he’s dedicated to maintaining the venue’s twenty-one-plus environment and requires his bouncers to use a booklet of state-issued driver’s licenses to screen for fakes. Despite BAR’s self-professed austerity, though, Brodoff tells his bouncers to hand back any IDs they catch to avoid legal entanglements or alienating future clientele.
BAR has a reputation among students for being particularly strict at the door, but there are a number of establishments in New Haven that students feel are far more complicit. Amelia told me that the bouncer at Box 63 once checked her ID using a scanner and admitted her even though her ID didn’t register as authentic (the manager at Box 63 declined to comment). Two students also pointed out that Toad’s Place has a weekly event on Wednesdays advertised as a “Yale Dance Party,” but will accept non-Yale IDs from people over twenty-one for a five-dollar charge. When I asked a doorman at Toad’s about what precautions they take to prevent minors from using fakes, she said there was an overhead camera at the entrance, but “when it comes to a machine, we don’t really enforce it.”
So while it’s true that Yale students are the ones who buy and use the fakes, the people accepting them don’t seem particularly up in arms about it either. The current generation of IDs is highly sophisticated, and in a college town, the revenue that proprietors stand to gain from a lenient approach could very well be worth the risk of incurring exorbitant fines. If there were any pretense left that the people in charge of keeping alcohol away from minors regarded their mission as a moral one, my talks with local bouncers dispelled it.
Some students did note that there has been a police crackdown on admitting and serving minors during their time at Yale. Local liquor store College Wine, for example, had its liquor license suspended last year and was fined $13,500 for selling to minors. Another liquor store near campus called Gag Jr’s, which multiple students described as “the place” to buy alcohol with a fake, recently started requiring two forms of ID from Yale students after police officers started catching more minors leaving the shop. When the store instituted the policy last spring, it saw a marked decrease in business, and an employee told me that he’s sure that students will soon find a way to counterfeit Yale IDs. (John, who recently bought alcohol there with his fake ID, simply told the cashier that he was a New Haven resident and so didn’t have to supply a second form.)
Of the 134 students who had an opinion on the matter, eighty-five percent described the general policy of New Haven institutions with respect to fake IDs as “fairly lenient” or “very lenient.” That perceived leniency undoubtedly contributes to the openness surrounding fakes on campus. One sophomore in Calhoun told me that her English professor once invited her to get drinks with him if her “fake was good enough,” and C.P. told me that minors often ask him which bars in the area are least strict about checking IDs. Even if students do get caught outside a store or in a raid, the punishment is small, so they remain relatively unfazed.
* * *
It would be tempting to think that Yale and New Haven authorities truly cleave to the idea that drinking under the age of twenty-one is harmful, but merely do a bad job of enforcing this belief. But around Yale’s campus, the law simply lacks the courage of its convictions, and many people in charge—a large portion of whom could drink when they were eighteen—don’t seem particularly invested in what it stands for. From bouncers to prosecutors, there is a passive acceptance of Yale’s fake ID culture that often borders on complicity.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe students can keep wiring money to accounts in Guangzhou and sneaking into bars with laissez-faire bouncers. Maybe Yale can continue to have soft punishments for fake IDs, and prosecutors can keep letting students off easy. Maybe this strange, unspoken agreement among all parties involved is actually a satisfactory equilibrium. The legal system still gets to pay lip service to the law, and college can continue to remain as fun as it’s always looked in Hollywood comedies. And given that an eighteen-year-old can legally purchase a gun before they can a gin and tonic, New Haven police officers probably have a better use for their resources than catching underage drinkers.
But part of me also thinks that the current system has problems. For one, it teaches young adults that it’s O.K. to have a blatant disregard for the law. While that’s not such a bad thing when it comes to fake IDs, it’s certainly not an attitude that one would want brought to, say, hard drug use or drunk driving.
Fake IDs have also displayed potential to smooth the edges of Yale’s drinking culture, but that leaves fewer, perhaps riskier social options for those without them. Yale students don’t need fake IDs to drink alcohol, and they won’t as long as some subset of the college population is able to buy liquor. Instead, the majority of students use their fakes to access social spaces, to spend time with friends in bars and clubs. For many students, especially as the novelty of dorm parties wears off, that kind of drinking is far more appealing, and potentially healthier.
Of course, it’s difficult to generalize as to whether bar culture is in fact less conducive to dangerous drinking patterns, as many students maintained. I imagine that there are other campuses drier than Yale’s where alcohol is hard to come by and the nearest bar is a car ride away, making off-campus drinking a much riskier activity. But for students looking to get thoroughly intoxicated at Yale, at least, where alcohol flows readily and drunk driving is for the most part a nonissue, the wobbly walked path of least resistance seems to bend away from five-dollar shots and back towards campus. And as C.P. told me, a lot of students he sees get drunk at home and go out after “for the environment.” That’s not to say that people don’t get wasted in public spaces, but it’s probably reasonable to assume that an underage student is better off getting a cocktail from a real bar instead of from the trigger-happy freshman consigned to pouring vodka from plastic bottles in Saybrook’s overcrowded, twelve-person party suite. The irony of our current drinking laws, though, is that without a fake ID, the former avenue is by far the more restricted.
So yes, we could continue like this, in this bizarre, liminal space where a significant portion of the Yale student body is buying fake IDs and little is done to stop it. But this tacit agreement perpetuates a culture in which minors who choose not to buy fake IDs may find it easier to get a handle of vodka or a drink with grain alcohol than to order a glass of wine. The drinking age is ostensibly set as high as it is because we believe that it will make minors safer, but the current environment is such that those who want to drink in less precarious spaces can only do so if they’re willing to break more laws and jump through a number of costly hoops.
If, as Dow said, the principal crime here is really underage drinking, then it’s difficult to condemn those who own fakes as being culpable of some unique moral transgression without also vilifying every Yale student who drinks before the age of twenty-one. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to place an even larger burden on local businesses for not playing by the rules when doing so has become virtually impossible. And because such a large portion of fake IDs is acquired through massive distributors, local authorities simply aren’t equipped to combat the source of the problem.
“What ends up happening is that the law exists,” Nora said, “and everyone dances around it.”
Until someone with much more power than college students and bouncers recognizes that this is not how a legal system and its citizens are meant to interact, a huge portion of the Yale population will continue to see fake IDs as a rite of passage, the law a half-hearted scarecrow to be made their perch.
*All names in this piece, unless they appear fully, have been changed to pseudonyms.