Liz*’s fakes came buried under a layer of plastic chopsticks. Two weeks after she arrived on campus, she lugged the cardboard box from the King’s Court package room to her dorm upstairs.
She coordinated the order with nine friends from high school. The process became intensive: Wrangle $60 from each of her high school friends. Place an order through IDGod, a popular website that brands itself as “the #1 trusted fake ID website worldwide.” Head to Western Union, pay cash. The website gave Liz a tracking number that turned out to be wrong—the fakes she followed were sent to Oberlin, Ohio. Once the package arrived, she taped the IDs to the inside of CVS birthday cards and shipped them to her friends.
“It was this whole thing,” the College freshman sighs. “But a fake ID at Penn is absolutely essential.”
The IDGod website Liz and so many other Penn student use promises, “Get your new ID. Be part of the crowd.” At Penn, the crowd and culture revolve around 21-plus activities: Tuesdays with Kweder. Margaritas on Copa Wednesday. Thursday night downtowns.
Fake IDs aren’t just about alcohol; they’re about access to experiences. And with the strong prevalence of fakes on campus, age at Penn really is just a number.
According to Pennsylvania state law, the penalties for using a fake ID range from $300 fines to up to ninety days of jail time. But on campus, there’s an implicit understanding that students can use fakes without consequence.
“They’re never going to catch us,” says a Wharton sophomore and fraternity member. “If they catch us, what are they gonna do? We’ll out-lawyer them. That’s the beauty of it: Harvest bouncer goes up against everybody from Westchester and their mother with all of their lawyers—and what, they’re going to put me in jail?”
Most students find that the worst outcome they face is getting their fake taken away
“No one but Harvest takes the ID,” says a bouncer who’s worked the door at multiple bars in University City. “If it’s fake, all other places in UCity just give it back.”
But, he adds, “Fakes are incredibly obvious to everyone, even without training in general.”
A Smokes’ bouncer says that whenever he sees a fake—which is often—he just “politely” hands it back.
“And if I get any snap back,” he says, “I tell them why their fake is fake.”
When Kate*, a College sophomore from Pennsylvania, dropped her wallet by Upper Quad Gate last year, she worried someone would discover the ID she bought from China. Penn Police left her wallet with a friend across the hall—with her fake conspicuously missing.
Elizabeth*, a College sophomore from Connecticut, says she’s more concerned about missing out than getting caught.
“It’s really heartbreaking when you get turned down and you’re with your friends,” she said. “I’d rather not face the embarrassment of getting turned away.”
During Fling this year, she and a group of eight friends were turned away, $30 tickets in hand, from an SAE downtown. They cabbed back to Baltimore Avenue and played beer pong in a friend’s frat—but she wishes they hadn’t left campus at all.
The trick is to go in with the right mindset, she says. Don’t pay in advance. Don’t count on using your fake to have a good night. Now when she goes downtown, which is not often, Elizabeth tells her friends that worse case, they can go to Max Brenner’s.
But even students who use their fakes regularly have fears.
“I think about [getting caught] all the time,” says a sophomore in M&T. He almost handed his fake to airport security on a flight back home. A senior says she’s stressed every time she shows her fake.
For some, though, fears of getting an ID confiscated stop them from getting one at all.
“I’m too scared to get one,” says a Wharton sophomore. “We act like it’s not, but come on. It’s illegal.” She swallows. “I don’t want to throw away what I’m working towards so I can buy a fucking margarita.”
By senior year, Lily* says, three–quarters of her friends have gotten fakes at some point during their time at Penn.
She ordered her fake last fall. She wouldn’t turn twenty–one until after junior year: Lily didn’t want to hold her friends back. She was sick of missing out on bars, of not being able to celebrate a friend’s birthday because of her age. And she was sick of spending Saturdays frat–hopping down Spruce.
“I think a part of it is that when you go to a frat, it very much feels like an exchange of your perceived attractiveness for alcohol,” she says. “Whereas if you buy alcohol you’re just exchanging money for alcohol.”
“There’s this gap between when people are really into frat parties and when they usually become twenty-one,” she says, adjusting her wide–rimmed glasses at Metro. “So that window between sophomore and late junior year—they can’t really do anything unless they have a fake.”
Liz, the freshman who ordered her own ID, finds it hard to imagine life at Penn without a fake.
“Everybody has one,” she says. “They’re everywhere.”
She uses hers for downtowns and Harvest—and most of the time, it works. When the bouncer at Rumor disputes her ID, she just bribes him.
“The first time, I slipped him 10 bucks in cash,” she says. “But then I realized he couldn’t see it and gave him $1, and that worked out fine.”
“There’s definitely an expectation that you’re supposed to have a fake,” says Gabrielle*, a sorority member and College sophomore. She felt the pressure to get a fake as soon as she joined—starting from Bid Night, when she couldn’t drink at a restaurant with the rest of her sisters. Then came date nights, downtowns. Her pledge class placed an order for fakes last month.
Wrapped in a bathrobe in his frat house room, a sophomore brother explains that he couldn’t fully participate in his fraternity until he ordered a fake. “I felt left out,” he sighs. “Brothers would be like, ‘Let’s go to the bar to celebrate this, let’s go to the bar to drink.’ I wish I had my fake for formal last year.”
Kate*, a member of a different sorority than Gabrielle, relied on her fake for date nights. She ordered her fake from China during her senior year of high school. The ID came tucked under the padding of a jewelry box.
When her sister turned twenty–one, Kate took her old ID.
“It’s an actual Pennsylvania license. It works like a charm.”
To the state of Pennsylvania, using someone else’s ID can be a misdemeanor or felony.
To Kate, “It’s a dream.”
Her fake worked 95% of the time. Now she has a 100% success rate. Bouncers never really look at the photo, she says.
“They glance and make sure you have the same features, but they’re more worried about whether the ID is real. It doesn’t matter if you look like the person—if it’s a brunette girl, you can use the same ID.”
Last week, her sorority held a date night at a bar in Center City. Most girls slipped money to the bouncer, but Kate walked in with no problem.
She says her twenty–two year old boyfriend had a harder time getting in than she did.
“Fakes are super common,” says a Smokes’ bouncer. “It seems like it’s a rite of passage for a lot of students.”
That rite of passage is usually fostered by student clubs or freshmen halls. Two weeks into her freshman year, a College sophomore in a sorority laughs, she walked home to find hallmates taking photos for fakes against the white walls in her hall lounge. A sophomore got his through a Big in one of his clubs; another ordered a fake last year through his frat.
“It’s economies of scale,” he says. “That’s why clubs and frats will order together—it’s all econ.”
What economics can’t explain, though, is that fakes contradict the supply and demand of alcohol on campus. Underclassmen say they Venmo older friends for liquor store runs and besides, says a sophomore English major, she can get drunk at a frat any weekend night she wants.
Only one student interviewed for this article says he uses his fake to directly buy alcohol. He’s heard liquor stores are too tough, though. Instead, he uses Instacart, an online grocery delivery service that brings him bottles of wine outside his highrise. Sometimes, the delivery person scans his fake; other times, they’ll just glance at it.
He says his female friends have an easier time with Instacart.
“A lot of girls who do it don’t get scanned. With one of my friends, the guy just verbally asked for her birthdate.”
But for most students, fakes don’t buy drinks: they buy experiences that carry their own expenses. Ubers and cover charges. A closet full of bodycon dresses and heels, primed for photos against bar backlights.
Not to mention the cost of a fake itself.
“There’s a huge socioeconomic skew,” Liz says. “You need to have money on hand willing to drop on this.” One of her friends just bought a fake for $200; students interviewed spent between $40 and $110 for theirs.
But everyone agreed a new identity was worth the price.
“I don’t need my own fake,” a South Asian student laughs in her Rodin dorm. “I can take an upperclassman’s ID. It’s an easy thing for brown people, because apparently, we all look alike.”
A Pakistani sophomore says she uses the same fake as an Indian girl who lives across the hall. They have different hair lengths and heights; under the flourescent lights of their high rise lounge, they only share a vague resemblance. But they say that bouncers can’t tell them apart because of their skin color.
For international students, coming to Penn means kissing legal drinking goodbye. The reverse happens when Quakers cross the Atlantic.
When Lily studied abroad in Europe last semester, she saw the benefits of a younger drinking age.
“It just made so much more sense that people went to college and could drink,” she says. “It was less of an ordeal. It was like, ‘Oh, let’s go to a bar and get a few drinks, let’s have a glass of wine at dinner’...versus trying to get obliterated.”
At Penn, she says, “There is no moderate drinking culture between 18 and 21.”
“Our motto is, ‘Laws without morals are useless,’” says the M&T sophomore. “And the drinking age law clearly isn’t in use, so it can’t be all that moral.”
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, prodding states to either raise the drinking age to 21 or lose ten percent of their federal highway funds. Since then, groups across the country have pushed to repeal that decision— but their attempts have been unsuccessful.
Every student interviewed for this piece agreed that the drinking age should be lowered. Many called the 21+ requirement “ridiculous.” With so many fakes on campus, the law seems outdated and ineffective.
On the Sunday morning after Halloween frat parties, a hungover sophomore steps over last night’s cat ears and googles, “Fake IDs now.” The ID God website pops up, and she grins.
In a few weeks, the fakes will ship to her dorm, hidden under cheap necklaces or bars of soap. She’ll jam the ID into her wallet and head to Smokes—finally ready to join the rest of her underaged friends.
* Names have been changed
Dani Blum is a sophomore English and Political Science double major from Connecticut. She is a Features Editor for 34th Street.