In July, New York will introduce new drivers’ licenses.
ALBANY — Over the years, the authorities across the nation have tried all manner of tactics to combat fake drivers’ licenses. Holograms. Water marks. Even blunt red letters reading “UNDER 21.”
There is a growing marketplace for fake IDs.
Now, however, New York is turning to a new design with a retro look: portraits in black and white.
Beginning in July, the state’s drivers who are seeking new licenses will be issued hard polycarbonate cards with photos that appear black and white, replacing the bendable color version, a move toward the monochromatic that is also being tried in several other states.
Officials in New York describe the new licenses as an important step in thwarting a thriving and sophisticated counterfeit market, often based online, that caters to underage drinkers. But the fakes can potentially be used for more serious crimes, including terrorism, the officials said.
“We see the New York driver’s license as the first line of defense,” J. David Sampson, executive deputy commissioner of the State Department of Motor Vehicles, said.
While the old-school images might seem odd, the new production method and a barrage of features both seen and unseen will make the licenses, officials say, virtually impossible to forge. Most critically, they say, the new licenses are laser engraved on rigid polycarbonate, replacing the current process of printing photos on more flexible material, which they say can be much more easily altered or fabricated. (While the photos at the D.M.V. will still be taken in color, the engraving is done in grayscale, hence the Ansel Adams feel.)
The new cards are so stiff that they sound like a compact disc when dropped. Personal data is also engraved, as is a “ghost image,” a small, second portrait of the driver that will float in a transparent window and will be visible from the front and the back. All of the elements are then fused together into what the department calls “a solid, monolithic structure that cannot be separated into layers and tampered with.”
After the success of a similarly designed United States passport card, New York is the second state to adopt this technology, which incorporates black-and-white images into a full color design. The first, in 2009, was Virginia. Since then, Pam Goheen, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said the department had not seen a “credible” forgery of a Virginia license, adding that those who tried had failed miserably.
“They’re really awful,” she said.
Still, the change in New York has generated some controversy.
A losing bidder for the license contract, De La Rue North America, has sued the Department of Motor Vehicles, contending that an eight-year deal with CBN Secure Technologies Inc., a United States subsidiary of the Canadian Bank Note Company, was granted unfairly. The contract for the production of the new licenses is worth up to $88.5 million, but department officials believe the actual cost could be closer to $70 million.
De La Rue, which makes the current bendable licenses, said that its proposal for the new contract cost significantly less than the winning bid. It also said it was not aware of the state’s preference for the more expensive, and more arty, polycarbonate. In an affidavit, a De La Rue official also argued that the polycarbonate cards could be less secure because they are produced in large sheets before they are personalized, and could be stolen and used to produce false identification.
The department would not comment on the legal challenge, but New York promises “the most counterfeit and tamper-resistant document technologically available” with some 30 security features, including embedded fine lines, variable patterns, micro-lettering.
It acknowledged that the new licenses would cost almost $1 more per license to produce and print. The department said that cost would not be passed on to drivers. It also said the waiting time for new licenses would not change.
Owen McShane, director of investigations for the department, said the cost of producing the licenses would be a deterrent to potential forgers.
“It’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars for an inscriber,” Mr. McShane said, referring to the engraving machine. “It’s not something a college student is going to be able to go out and get.”
Owen McShane, director of investigations for the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, said the new licenses were considered almost impossible to forge.
Officials say that the rise of the online marketplace for fake IDs has made a crackdown even more essential.
One Web site, mr-i-d.com, lists its fake New York license as its most popular, though the site says in a disclaimer that its products are sold as novelties.
Other sites are less subtle, like the Espionage Unlimited Spy Shop and Spy Store (espionage-store.com/) which advertises “a bulletproof fake ID,” and photos of a young, cool crowd dancing in a bar.
“Let’s get straight to the point: you’re watching this video because you’re interested in getting a fake ID,” the voice-over declares in a video on the Espionage Unlimited site. “Whether you just want to go to the clubs and have drinks with your friends or you want to start a whole new life complete with a new identity, Social Security number, bank accounts, a credit score and more.”
New York and other states are also trying other strategies to fight fraud.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced this month that the Department of Motor Vehicles had used facial recognition technology to investigate some 13,000 cases of identity fraud over the last three years, resulting in about 2,500 arrests.
Raymond P. Martinez, the motor vehicle commission chairman in New Jersey and a former commissioner in New York, whose agency announced similar arrests in February, said the fake ID problem touched upon more than under-age drinking, listing crimes that sham documents could be used for, including benefit fraud and evasion of child support payments.
Still, Mr. Martinez said New Jersey had no plans to go grayscale.
“We like our license,” Mr. Martinez said. “We have a color photo which we are very happy with.”
Such state pride over documentation seems common. Virginia, for instance, says its license has 21 security elements, including raised lettering, the ghost image and various other unspoken identifiers.
There are “only about two people on the planet who know all of them,” Ms. Goheen, the Virginia spokeswoman, said, adding that it was “perhaps the most secure state-issued ID in the nation.”
North Carolina’s new polycarbonate licenses with black-and-white images, expected to make their debut at the end of the year or in early 2014, will have better stamina, said Margaret Howell, a Division of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman. The current plastic version, she added, was “vulnerable to durability, security and quality issues,” including bleeding of dye. Maryland is considering polycarbonate as well.
For its part, New York says its new licenses will put it “at the forefront of secure drivers license production and issuance.”
Both New York and Virginia owe a debt to the State Department, which began issuing polycarbonate passport cards with black-and-white portraits in 2008. The department has issued almost 6 million of these cards, which do not replace traditional passports but can be used to enter the United States by land and sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
Mr. McShane of the Department of Motor Vehicles said his corps of 100 investigators had collected 1,450 counterfeit drivers’ licenses in underage drinking stings in 2012.
He said he had been amazed by the level of sophistication used by overseas forgers, who have shipped their product to underage customers in boxes of shoes (with the IDs hidden in the soles) or even in tea sets.
“It’s scary how far they’ll go,” he said.
He said he was pleased that the new licenses would be difficult to knock off.
“They’re always trying,” he said. “But hopefully this will encourage them to try another state.”