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A CBC News investigation has found that a sophisticated fake ID market is openly thriving in Canada's largest city, with shops selling cards as novelty items that are just different enough from government-issued identification to evade police scrutiny.

Signs outside a variety of shops along Toronto's popular Yonge Street tout their products as "novelty" or "souvenir" IDs. However, nothing on the cards labels them as novelty or souvenir items.

A hidden camera investigation by CBC News revealed that the market caters to underage teenagers with a range of official-looking identity cards complete with security features such as magnetic strips, holograms and black-light images.

For about $50, customers can buy an identity card of their choice from almost any Canadian province or U.S. state. The card can include a real home address from the chosen area. At least one clerk said they found the real addresses using Google Maps.

An extra $10 secures the customer a fake student ID card from a selection of Canadian universities.

"It was incredible how easy it was to get it," said Theresa, 16, one of four teens who wore hidden cameras for the investigation. "I thought there would be a bit of a process but … nothing is needed to get this whatsoever."

The four teens recorded encounters at the novelty ID shops with CBC's hidden cameras. They found it was easy to buy the fake IDs, even when they indicated to the sales clerk that they intended to use the cards to buy liquor.

Tips?

If you have more information on this story, or other investigative tips, please email investigations@cbc.ca.

A CBC producer who later visited one of the stores was told by a clerk that they only sell novelty IDs to those aged 17 to 20. Asked why, he said that's the way the business is structured.

CBC investigative correspondent Diana Swain returned to one of the "novelty" ID sellers on Yonge Street to ask them about the practice of selling to youth.

The shop clerk denied selling to underage teens and refused to answer any questions.

Subtle differences

Toronto Police Service Det.-Staff Sgt. Gordon Whealy, who examined the purchased IDs, said the so-called novelty cards contain enough differences to allow shops to openly sell them without interference.

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A number of stores on Toronto's Yonge Street tout 'novelty' or 'souvenir' ID cards. (CBC)

Slight differences in colour and positioning of information are ways the phony cards can differ from the government-issued ones.

In the shops visited by the teens, they were asked to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that the IDs were "novelty" items.

When one of the teens, Theresa, asked a shopkeeper at a shop if the card would gain her entry into bars, he replied that he couldn't make "any kind of claim as to that."

"These are for novelty purposes only," the shopkeeper said. "Whatever you do with it is your business. If that’s what you use it for that’s what you do but there’s no guarantees on anything because that’s not – we don’t really make them for that."

Moments later, the same man coached Theresa on how to get her photos taken for the novelty ID. After snapping one shot for her phony provincial identity card, he advised her to change her look for a second piece of ID, a student identification card.

"Just change your look a little bit you know," he said. "I mean, do you really want your student card to look like it was taken... Just fiddle with your hair a little. That’s perfect."

Tough to spot

To a bartender in a dimly-lit busy environment, an out-of province fake ID could be tough to spot.

With permission from a manager at a local Toronto bar, two of the teens tested whether security staff and servers would be misled by the fake ID cards.

A bouncer waved Theresa, 16, inside the bar after viewing her two phony ID cards.

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Shops sell 'souvenir' identity cards from almost any Canadian province or U.S. state, as well as phony university student cards. (CBC)

A waiter laughed when Joseph, 14, asked for a drink but the ID card was slick enough to prompt the waiter to seek a second-opinion from the bouncer. They studied the card closely for almost a minute before refusing to serve him.

One of the phony student cards sold to the teens in CBC's hidden camera test featured the logo of Hamilton, Ont.-based McMaster University.

University officials said that they are considering issuing a cease-and-desist order to the seller.

"The university obviously is concerned that a counterfeit card is available," the university told CBC News. "Should we learn the identity of the vendor we would take action to notify them that they are in violation of our trademark and copyrights."

But the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, which administers issuance of provincial driver's licences and identity cards, says some features can quickly differentiate real cards from fakes.

Raised type can be felt when you run fingers over the cards, said the corporation's communications representative Adam Grossman. Also, the real cards have faded edging on the photographs.

Another difference is the material used.

"The B.C. ID is made using a unique polycarbonate card stock," said Grossman. "Importantly, it also provides a quick way to spot a fake. If you drop a real B.C. ID card onto a surface, it will make a tin-like sound."

If you have more information on this story, or other investigative tips, please email investigations@cbc.ca.