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SARATOGA SPRINGS – Fifteen people, including 11 currently enrolled high school students, were arrested after allegedly purchasing fake driver’s licenses from an international counterfeiting ring. The four other people facing charges include one of the teenager’s parents, two recent graduates from Saratoga Springs High School and a student at Skidmore College. The 14 teenagers are all facing charges of third-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, a Class-A misdemeanor. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of up to a year in jail.

 

 

Stephen Smero, 48, is the parent alleged to have secured the money order used to obtain the fake licenses. He is facing felony charges of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, as well as misdemeanor charges of first-degree unlawful dealing with a child and sixth-degree criminal conspiracy. He could serve up to seven years in jail if convicted.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and I can still say I’m shocked that a parent would go through such lengths allegedly to provide alcohol, and in this case fake IDs to not only his own child but his or her friends. I think this is probably the most disturbing allegation we have,” said Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy, III.

The forged licenses were facsimiles of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida and Maine indentification, and some were equipped with enhanced security features such as holograms and working magnetic strips which fooled card readers and black light-wielding bouncers alike. The forgeries were allegedly obtained from a website called IDChief.com based out of China. At the press conference, Lt. Catone said the website had been taken down, but as of 11:14 AM April 5, the website appears to be back online.

Saratoga Springs Police Lt. John Catone said the forgeries contained all of the cardholder’s legitimate information. The only changes on the documents were made to the individual’s date of birth. It’s the inclusion of that personal information that Murphy says may have already been sold up to 10 times, which can result in the victims’ identities being used to falsely obtain multiple mortgages and lines of credit in their name.

“From what I understand, the information provided to the website from these transactions, which include their picture and a picture of their signature, is then immediately sold to the highest bidder because [theses websites] are in the business of selling identities,” said Murphy.

The path the documents take to reach the United States was outlined at a press conference held April 3 at Saratoga Springs City Hall. Authorities say that though the website in question was based out of China, the money was wired to a location in Indonesia.  The fake licenses themselves were actually manufactured somewhere in Eastern Europe, before being covertly shipped among other items to the United States. One such delivery came hidden among a tea set. It’s estimated that two of these IDs, including the enhanced security authentication, cost only $75.

What’s alarmed the authorities the most is the authenticity of the counterfeits, which according to the District Attorney, could allow the students – or anyone else with one of these counterfeits – to travel internationally.

“This is not the ID that we adults think of when we think of fake IDs,” said Murphy. “This is not chalking your license or changing a one to a seven.  These are extraordinarily high-tech, high-security embedded identification cards.”

The documents in question are alleged to be so authentic looking that experts brought in to analyze them concluded that there was no way to discern it was a fake with the naked eye. In fact, according to Catone, the forgeries could even fool police scanners should they be pulled over.

The police investigation into the counterfeits began when 18-year-old Bradley Green allegedly tried to purchase alcohol at a local liquor store. Green had already been asked for identification, which had been scanned to show he was old enough for the purchase. Another patron at the store recognized Green, and alerted an employee of the store that he was not of age to be purchasing alcohol. Lt. Catone says an employee confronted Green, and he left the store without incident, leaving the fake document behind. Catone added that Green was attempting to purchase alcohol before he and other students made a trip to Utica, where the Saratoga Springs High School ice hockey team was playing for a state championship.

“I think we should cite the fact that the people working in that liquor store took their job very seriously, as they could have easily just made that sale and let that person walk out of the store,” said Commissioner of Public Safety, Chris Mathiesen. “Instead, they made the effort to see what was going on.”

After the liquor store followed up with the Saratoga Springs Police Department, an investigation revealed that at least two fake ID purchases were made from the Beijing-based IDChief. The first purchase came during the spring of 2011, with the second in late summer of the same year.
Despite the 15 arrests, the investigation is still open and ongoing, and Lt. Catone believes more arrests are likely, though added he’s not sure when.

“We’re in the process of interviewing approximately 30 more high school students related to the false IDs and various parties that were hosted by residents in the city.”

Lt. Catone says the identification cards were not only used to purchase alcohol at up to a half dozen establishments around the Saratoga Springs and Wilton areas, but to gain entry to various bars along Caroline Street.  The businesses are not expected to face any criminal charges over the sale of alcohol to minors, as proper protocol was followed when asking for identification.

“This is the beginning of what will be a long, sordid tale for them, all for the sake of getting a beer on Caroline Street,” said Murphy.

All of the students charged also received 90-day suspensions of their driving privileges from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which could be extended to up to a year if they’re uncooperative with the investigation.

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