WASHINGTON — When the fleeing motorcycle hit the curb, scraped past a utility pole and hurled 20-year-old Craig Eney to his death, a bogus South Carolina driver's license was in the hip pocket of his jeans.

He spent the final hours of his life using that phony license to buy shots for buddies at two Annapolis, Md., bars — places so popular among underage drinkers that bouncers are stationed outside to check everyone's ID.

Yet scores of young people flash fake licenses and waltz into the bar.

The days when faking driver's licenses was a cottage industry — often practiced by computer geeks in dorm rooms with laminating machines — have given way to far more sophisticated and prolific practitioners who operate outside the reach of the law.

In an era when terrorism and illegal immigration have transformed driver's licenses into sophisticated mini-documents festooned with holograms and bar codes, beating the system has never been easier. Just wire money to "the Chinese guy."

"He's like some sort of genius in China," said a 19-year-old for whom Eney bought shots that night. "Every kid in Annapolis has one of his licenses."

The "Chinese guy" — whose e-mail address is passed around on college campuses and among high school kids — is actually a Chinese company that mails thousands of fake driver's licenses to the U.S.

To the naked eye — even the practiced eye of most bartenders and cops — the counterfeits look perfect. The photo and physical description are real. So is the signature. The holograms are exact copies, and even the bar code can pass unsophisticated scans.

"We're seeing these false IDs being generated from the same source out of China," said Steven Williams, chief executive of Intellicheck, which supplies detection equipment to federal agencies, law enforcement and businesses.

The IDs have shown up in various states, each carrying a mysterious hidden tip-off in the bar code that points directly to the same Chinese company.

More than just the rage among underage drinkers, the top-flight bogus licenses are a hot item among practitioners of credit-card fraud. But it is among those too young to drink legally that these forgeries take their greatest toll.

Every day between Memorial Day and Labor Day, an average of 16 people ages 20 or younger die on the nation's highways, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Forty-one percent of 20-year-olds who die in accidents have been drinking.

As Craig Eney prepared to leave the Acme Bar and Grill on Main Street in Annapolis on June 16, his drinking buddies said they thought he was too drunk to ride the bike. But that didn't stop Kelcey Silva, 19, who police say didn't even know Eney. She was sitting on the back of the blue Yamaha when police caught up with it a few minutes later. Silva also died in the accident.

How it works

The shoe box that arrived in the mail from China contained a cheap pair of shoes. "We thought the Chinese guy had ripped us off," said the 19-year-old who shared shots with Eney the night he died.

Until then, the deal had gone smoothly. She made first contact through an e-mail address supplied by an acquaintance. A reply laid out the details. "It was $300 if you just wanted one" license, she said. "It was $200 (each) for two and $75 (each) if you wanted more than 20."

Photos, names, signatures and physical descriptions were e-mailed to the address. Money was collected from friends and wired to an address in China specified in the e-mail.

"You can pick from a list of about 10 states," she said.

The shoe box with postmarks from China arrived in a matter of days. After initial consternation, she flipped over one of the shoes and ripped open the sole. Out tumbled 22 visually perfect driver's licenses.

 

This spring, federal authorities in Chicago intercepted thousands of fake licenses hidden in jewelry boxes and shoes shipped from China. Border Patrol officials, who made the seizure in Chicago, are cracking down on phony licenses, but the IDs usually come disguised in individually addressed packages, making the task difficult.

Driver's licenses took on a new significance in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered that the hijackers carried several that had been fraudulently obtained.

The "Chinese guy" operation has been linked to a company called PARTiTek in Nanjing, China. When the bar code on the back of the phony licenses is scanned, at the very end of the readout appears "by PARTiTek."

PARTiTek said the bar code is the company's but that it doesn't produce the licenses.

Five weeks after the accident, a bouncer checked driver's licenses outside the Acme Bar and Grill with a new handheld scanner. It was put to the test when a young woman handed him a Maryland license; it looked genuine but was flagged as bogus three times by the scanner.

"I can't let you in," he said, handing the license back.

Moving up the street, she flipped out her cellphone. "I can't get in," she told a friend inside the bar. "It didn't scan."