Study: Acquiring Fake Documents Common on the Open Web

Researchers at East Lansing’s Michigan State University say an internet connection and a search engine is all it takes to acquire fake documents and IDs online without the need for connection to the dark web.
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fake IDs online illustration
MSU researchers have found that it is easy to get fake documents and IDs without the need to access the dark web. // Illustration courtesy of Michigan State University

Researchers at East Lansing’s Michigan State University say an internet connection and a search engine is all it takes to acquire fake documents and IDs online without the need for connection to the dark web.

Thomas Holt, a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at MSU, recently led research on counterfeit identity documents with 10 undergraduate students and doctoral candidate Jin Lee. Holt and his team studied 19 different vendors and monitored online advertisements for driver’s licenses, passports, and credit card numbers.

Through their research, it was discovered that passports are the most common counterfeit document sold online. However, buyers are looking for passports originating from other countries, especially those in the European Union, instead of the U.S. This may be an indication that U.S. passports are more difficult to reproduce because of the security measures in place.

“We were surprised by the quantity of people selling passports and other identity documents,” says Holt. “The way that these products were being sold was kind of novel and it mirrored traditional e-commerce sites like Amazon.”

Additionally, Holt and his team discovered that vendors often use specific language to appeal to their audience, such as how using a fake document can enhance customers’ lifestyles. One vendor also wanted to pay customers to help sell the products, saying they would sell fake IDs at a discounted rate that the customer could then sell for the full price. Typically, fake documents can range anywhere from $5 to $5,000.

“Even if you are buying a fake ID for fraudulent purposes, you want the best quality that you can get for your money,” says Holt. “The biggest downside to these markets is that the buyer is left with the risk of making a buy and seeing if they can actually use the document.”

With many counterfeit documents being bought and sold on the open web, rather than the dark web, Holt and his team also have discovered that this presents law enforcement with new opportunities of catching criminals. For example, a clever police tactic could involve creating a made-up listing of dummy vendors and the prices of their “products” on a public website. This “competition” might pressure the real criminals into making an online mistake that then alerts investigators.

Identifying vendors can also challenging, however, as most transactions are done using bitcoin, a type of digital currency that operates independently of central banks.

Online counterfeiters also can be tracked by certain clues within the vendors’ online ads, including search terms or advertising on a certain platform in a certain way. Law enforcement can then identify and disrupt those websites immediately.

“I would love to partner with law enforcement because of the potential to further investigate how much legitimacy surrounds a product,” says Holt. “We still don’t know what the final products offered look like.”

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