Thursday, August 15, 2002

ID scanners screen underage sales

System lets bar owners eliminate most errors in finding the fakes

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS - Every weekend, thirsty patrons crowd into the cramped brick foyer of Brian Boru's, a smoky pub in a trendy downtown neighborhood.

        As each person hands over a driver's license to the doorman perched on a bar stool, he swipes it like a credit card through a scanner to see if the customer is 21, the legal age to enter the bar and drink alcohol.

        The name and age pop up on the screen as the device reads — and then stores on a computer disk — the information encoded in the license's magnetic strip or bar code.

        Over the past few years, a small but growing number of nightclubs, convenience stores and beer distributors have begun using scanners to keep alcohol, tobacco and fake IDs out of minors' hands.

        “It's the future of our business,” said Chris Hale, Brian Boru's general manager. “It protects us. It's idiot proof. There's no more human error.”

        The scanners can read all information encoded in a license, including a person's height, weight, birthdate, address, and, in some states, Social Security number. Marketed under names such as The Identifier and MinorChecker, they usually cost between $500 and $2,500.

        Anti-drug crusaders say they welcome the scanners as another tool for fighting underage substance use and ferreting out fake IDs.

        Usually, bartenders, doormen and store clerks simply look at IDs to check birthdates and photos, making judgment calls as to whether the card belongs to the person standing before them. Errors are possible, especially at a time when high-tech fake IDs that look like the real thing are widely available.

        Most scanners, however, verify age and an ID's authenticity by making sure the information on the front of the card matches the data encoded in it.

        Privacy advocates fear businesses will use the information gleaned for other purposes, such as notifying customers who regularly attend jazz concerts of upcoming events.

        “Why should your visit to a restaurant, bar or convenience store end up resulting in marketing pitches?” asked Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based consumer organization.

        Merchants say they use the information only to protect themselves and their clerks from unknowingly selling alcohol and cigarettes to minors.

        According to a study last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 13.1 percent of youths under age 18 were smokers and 27.5 percent of those age 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the month before they filled out the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

        “Part of the problem is that fake IDs are easy to get, so we want to make sure we have tools to identify them,” said Wendy Hamilton, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

        Paul Barclay, owner of The Rack, an upscale pool hall in Boston, bought a $2,500 Intelli-Check scanner in 1997 and posted a sign outside the bar warning customers that every ID is scanned.

        “Some people see that and turn away,” he said.

        Despite the possibility of losing a few customers, Mr. Hale said, the scanner saves money in the long run because it prevents Brian Boru's from being fined or closed by liquor control agents for violating Ohio laws by serving to underage customers.

        But a January report by the Schneider Institute for Health Policy and the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University found that such devices stymie underage purchases of alcohol and tobacco only if they are used for every customer.

        Forty-one states have licenses with bar codes or magnetic strips on them, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Some states don't activate the data strips immediately upon distribution of licenses.

        That's the reason Bob Richard, who owns 11 Barney's convenience stores in Toledo, is not pleased with the scanners he bought in 2000.

        “The problem is not with the manufacturer, it's with the individual states,” Richard said. “They've been more hassle than they are worth.”The Associated Press/Jay Laprete


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