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How fake IDs are made for characters on movies and TV shows

  Following is a transcript of the video:

  Officer Michaels: Can I see your ID?

  McLovin’: Yeah, I think I have it.

  Narrator: This might be the most famous fake ID in any movie — so famous that someone tried to use it as a fake ID in real life. That’s why prop makers have to be extra careful when making fake IDs for movies and TV shows. Too good, and they could get into legal trouble. We stopped by The Hand Prop Room in LA, which made the McLovin ID, and the studio of graphic props artist Ross MacDonald to see how Hollywood makes its prop IDs.

  When creating fake IDs for production, agencies might limit their customers to major studios. It’s the prop maker’s job to make these IDs look as real as possible on screen without crossing into any legal gray areas. Like with this New Mexico driver’s license, which The Hand Prop Room made for “Black Widow.” The photo of Scarlett Johansson has been swapped in for a stock photo, and the hologram, which in real IDs would be 3D, is actually 2D.

  Jacob Kubon: There’s a lot of tricks that you can use in the graphic itself to make it look like it’s catching light and having some shine to it.

  Narrator: For a special close-up, they might simulate the hologram physically using a silk screen and iridescent powders mixed with clear ink. Luckily, according to graphic props artists Ross MacDonald, simplifying elements like holograms and shadow images can make the ID look better on screen, since it won’t be as jammed with tiny details.

  Ross: The rule of thumb is convincing is better than accurate.

  Narrator: To nail the aesthetics, prop makers often focus on the sheen of the ID.

  Jacob: A lot of the driver’s licenses you see, especially now, have this kind of matte, but also a bit of a sheen look. And that’s what we’re going to get from the lamination process.

  Narrator: Laminating will also give it the weight of an actual driver’s license, so that when the actor holds the card, it not only looks, but feels like the real deal. For projects that call for close-ups, they use this old-school embossing machine to make sure the lighting reflects off the numbers on the card in the right way. And for special forms of ID, like those for the US Army, the prop makers might have to mimic metal chips. For these, prop artists can make fake chips out of vinyl to stick on top of the ID, or they can print it on a card that already has the fake chip built in. But specialized IDs pose another problem.

  Ross: They’re often very, very plain. Military ID cards, police identification, even the FBI identification, they’re meant to be looked at really close up. But on a TV screen, they might be sort of holding it up, and we’re looking at them from eight feet away.

  Narrator: As a prop artist, you’d maybe spice things up with a flashy gold badge or this type of giant FBI logo you see popping up a lot in shows and movies.

  Ross: And a lot of times the frame of reference that viewers have is other shows. The “X-Files” one is one that you see copied a lot.

  Narrator: The ID also needs to play well in the scene.

  Mulder: FBI.

  Narrator: Like this 1920s one Ross made for a Prohibition agent in “Boardwalk Empire.” He first produced an ID faithful to what agents carried at the time. But after some rehearsals, the filmmakers asked him to add space for a badge inside, so the agents would have something to flash.

  Things get tricky when it comes to passports, which are generally much harder to forge than ID cards because of all the detail involved across multiple pages. To make a current US passport, The Hand Prop Room has to print and trim the pages, do a clear overlay on the photo page, and silk-screen the cover to give it that authentic sheen. After sewing the pages together, the prop makers assemble the passport and do a final trim. To avoid legal troubles, prop houses will sometimes deliberately alter the look, like on this Netherlands passport for “Madam Secretary.” The show’s legal team asked The Hand Prop Room to make the passport less accurate by reshuffling the layout and changing the color scheme.

  With historical IDs, legality isn’t an issue, so prop artists can get a lot more authentic on period shows. That’s what Ross did when he made this 1920s passport for Steve Buscemi’s character on “Boardwalk Empire.”

  Agent: Passport?

  Narrator: Ross first had to track down a 1921 passport to use as a model, then digitally clear out the existing info and recreate the background pattern so that he could go in and write the new material on top. He had to find the red legal seal in Europe, since the US doesn’t use that kind anymore, then emboss the seal and photo, make, print, and perforate the stick-on stamps, and recreate all the rubber stamps to match those of the time period. He was lucky to have an example to work with. It can be a lot harder to find reference material for more mundane forms of ID, like a driver’s license from a specific year and state.

  Ross: Especially from pre-1980, there’s no reason for anyone to digitize that.

  Narrator: For this one, the closest reference Ross could find was a photo of a New Jersey license from 1923. He scanned it and built all this type on top of it in the computer to recreate a high-res version. Since this stuff is so hard to find, Ross keeps folders of all the reference materials he’s compiled through the 100-plus movies he’s worked on. When he’s working off a pixelated photo like this one, the hardest part is recreating the actual document part of the ID. Ross has to identify all the typeface, so he places different fonts over the original text to find ones that match. It helps to have a library of antique fonts used in different time periods.

  Ross: You can date this particular cutting of this font to between 1815 and roughly 1825.

  Narrator: Sometimes, though, you have to recreate a whole alphabet. For this 1960 passport made for an unreleased project, Jacob scanned six or seven real passports from the era to capture every letter of the alphabet, then cleaned up the letters and vectorized them to make a whole new font just for this particular year of passports. His team also had to recreate by hand the blue-to-red effect of this special ’60s stamp. Replicating the look of old printing tools takes some creative problem solving. The Hand Prop Room used printing tricks on this ’67 California license for Chris Pine’s character in “I Am the Night” to make the text look like it came out of a typewriter. Whenever possible, it helps to use the real deal. Ross prints all kinds of seals and typefaces on his old-school letterpress, which is operated by a foot pedal. Then there’s the question of what to write. Ross made these Illinois licenses for a scene where the police raid a packed speakeasy, which meant a bunch of background characters needed to show ID. So Ross had to make up a bunch of names, addresses, exact heights, weights, and more.

  Ross: After about the 10th one, you’re like, did I use John Smith already?

  Narrator: Ross will often refer to period yearbooks for names that sound old-school.

  Ross: This guy’s Aloysius Sawicki.

  Narrator: And for main characters, all this info needs to be confirmed with production. These are passport instructions for Owen Sleater in “Boardwalk Empire,” providing details like the character’s full name and hair color but leaving out other pertinent information.

  Ross: A lot of other documentation requires things like birth dates. You know, the writers have never even considered how old the character is or what his birthday is.

  Narrator: At the end of the day, though, graphic prop artists like Ross and Jacob don’t always know how the prop will be used when they’re creating it. Sometimes these props are highlighted in the action, but sometimes you’re doing a lot of research and work for an ID that may only be flashed on screen for a split second.

  Ross: So, incredibly elaborate prop, which we see in the episode like this. He just hands it across the counter.

  There were no pictures of the criminals on wanted posters in the 19th century. It’s something that comes from the movies. Most people didn’t have photographs of themselves.

How students get fake IDs

  In a college town permeated with party culture, sometimes minors can feel pressured to obtain alcohol. Because of this, some students go out of their way to obtain fake identification cards (IDs)  or driver’s licenses so they can buy alcohol on their own.

  Freshman Daniel (editor’s note: name and major are omitted to protect his identity) recently jumped hurdles to obtain a fake ID.

  “Usually when I want to drink, I have an upperclassman buy alcohol for me,” Daniel said. “But there are times when it’s hard to get together; having a fake ID means that at any time I can go. It gives me a lot more freedom.”

  Getting the ID

  All Daniel had to do for the fake ID was pay the fee, which came out to about $80 to $90, provide a photo that met certain requirements, such as a plain light background and taken from the waist up, and provide whatever information he wanted printed. These requirements were shared with Daniel through social media.

  Daniel was approached by a member of an organization he’s part of and was asked if he was interested in purchasing a fake ID. While there are multiple ways to obtain fake IDs, Daniel said he thought buying one from someone he knew would be safest. Other ways to get them include buying them from online sources or even making them yourself.

  While some Cal Poly students are equipped with the materials and resources necessary to make fake IDs, such as laminators and heavy card stock, not everyone has access to them. Because of this, it is considered safer and easier to buy one that is professionally made.

  After paying for his ID, Daniel had to wait several weeks for it to arrive. Fake IDs are produced in bulk; therefore, a certain number of orders is required before the seller can fill the entire order. These deals are usually spread by word of mouth and through a long chain of people. All Daniel knew was the ID was being forged somewhere out of state.

  Until recently, social connections were required to get a fake ID. But now, things are different. There are several websites where they can be purchased. These websites price IDs differently based on what state they’re from — some states such as California are harder to forge for than a state like Ohio — and how many are being bought. Payment for these are usually made in one of two fashions: bitcoin or Western Union, a website that allows buyers to meet with sellers directly and pay them in cash.

  The risks

  Most restaurants and bars that serve alcohol require their staff to go through Licensed Education on Alcohol and Drugs (LEAD) training. The LEAD program is a free course offered through the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The program helps small businesses reduce the risk of liability and possibly even reduce insurance premiums for restaurants. While many restaurants require this training, the licenses obtained at the end of the course do not expire.

  “We actually catch a lot of people with fake IDs,” Petra co-owner Rammy Aburashed said. “I think they’re attracted by our variety in beers. We have around 16 beers on tap and a whole variety of bottles available for sale. But when we catch people with fake IDs, we are required to call the police. All of our staff does a good job with spotting fakes; they go through their training and if they accidentally sell beer to a minor, the employee can get fined

  around $5,000.”

  Daniel is among students with fake IDs who choose to brave venues such as Petra rather than bars.

  “I don’t think I’d ever try and sneak into a bar, though,” Daniel said. “For me, it’s just too risky and I feel like it’s not the place for me. I would much rather buy from a place like BevMo or Petra, not necessarily a bar but somewhere that still sells beer and stuff.”

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