For police, restaurants and liquor stores — not to mention teenagers trying to get their hands on beer or a cocktail — some high-tech little machines are making a big difference on the Vineyard this summer.

With underage drinking historically at a high rate in this resort community, Island police say more minors, fueled by increasingly easy access to high-quality fake IDs, are being caught as they try to purchase alcohol on the Island. A new line of defense has come in the form of computerized ID readers that make it easier for package stores, bars and restaurants to find the fakes, with offenders potentially facing stiff consequences.

Between police, alcohol establishments, and community groups, an all-out effort is underway to thwart underage access to liquor. The Dukes County Youth Task Force has been working to connect different parts of the community and create a safety net for kids, said coordinators Theresa Manning and Jamie Vanderhoop.

“I don’t think more kids are drinking,” Ms. Manning said. “I think more kids are getting caught because of the sophisticated technology.”

This technology is especially necessary, some say, because of the Vineyard’s role as a resort destination, where people of all ages come to have a good time, and where Vineyard teenagers are susceptible to the vacation atmosphere and the ebb and flow of the seasonal lifestyle.

A few years ago, Ms. Manning and Ms. Vanderhoop point out, underage drinking rates on the Vineyard were higher than state and national averages. But the task force has met its goal of dropping the rate by 10 per cent, with underage drinking now at or below averages elsewhere.

According to a 2010 survey by the task force, 43 per cent of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, lower than the state average of 46 per cent and national average of 45 per cent.

According to the survey, 21 per cent of those who drank in the last 30 days reported getting the alcohol from a friend who is 21 years old or older, while 10 per cent reported receiving it from a friend who is younger than 21. Six per cent said they got the alcohol from their mother or father without their permission; five per cent said they got it from their mother and father with permission, and another five per cent said they got it from their brother, sister or another relative.

“Our data for our kids here shows that [underage drinking has] come down dramatically,” Ms. Manning said. “A lot of people, for four years at least, have been paying attention to it in lots of different aspects. It has to do with the police, schools, parents . . . I think kids are getting positive messages.”

Martha's Vineyard Bouncer
Bouncer checks IDs outside the Wharf Pub in Edgartown, a busy and sometimes difficult job on any summer night. — Ray Ewing

“Our kids are really faced with a lot of adult situations at an early age here,” she said, adding that teenagers often make good money the summer working alongside college-age kids in the service industry. “That blurs that boundary a little bit and gives them more access in a sense,” Ms. Manning said.

Additionally, “our community becomes stretched really thin this time of year, parents are working more or going out more and socializing more,” she said. “So they’re not as much under their thumb, they’re not in school . . . they don’t have those safe places.”

“And everyone on vacation is letting their kids live a little looser, and when you see that all the time, people on vacation, you start to think that’s how things work,” Ms. Vanderhoop added.

The two youth leaders said there’s the additional factor of college-age students who live on the Island and have younger teens in their social group.

The “near peers,” or those 21 to 25 years of age, are how kids typically get alcohol, they said, rather than at stores or bars. “It’s social access, it’s people buying it for them, being around it,” Ms. Manning said.

Parents are being more proactive, Ms. Manning said.“We’re seeing a trend that more parents are talking on the front end and setting things up to really send a clear message . . . and you know our hope is that more and more parents will feel confident enough to do that. It really makes a huge difference.”

Having the ID readers, which cost about $5,000 and which most Island liquor stores now have, is an investment, Ms. Vanderhoop said.

But the investment can pay off. Failing a compliance check is costly, with the cost of taking a day off and traveling to the mainland for a hearing, hiring an attorney and facing fines, and the potential business closure or loss of liquor license.

“It seems like a lot, but really it’s kind of a no-brainer for places here in the summer,” Ms. Manning said. “We have a such a transient population, you’re dealing with IDs from all over the place. I think that is part of why they’ve seen an increase of people charged with fake ID . . . but I would say that probably correlates to less access for kids.”

In Edgartown, the police department has had 53 calls for ID checks since Memorial Day, according to Det. Sgt. Christopher Dolby. The calls have resulted in 30 court cases for fake identification or a minor attempting to procure alcohol.

At this time last year, he said, there were 10 court cases. “A significant jump,” Sergeant Dolby said.

“It’s always been here, it’s always going to be here,” the sergeant said of underage drinking. But he said bars and package stores are apprehending more minors. “Our calls for checks are significant now.”

Sergeant Dolby said handling a call for a fake ID is usually done at the officer’s discretion. “We like to involve parents, especially when they’re as young as 16, 17 years old,” he said. “The young adult’s attitude has a lot to do with [the outcome],” he added. “It’s an arrestable offense.”

In the majority of cases, he said, they will be summoned to court, where they can face community service and fines.

Sergeant Dolby said the Edgartown police recently conducted several compliance checks in which they made sure bars and package stores comply with a number of regulations, from occupancy numbers to admission and sale of alcohol to those under 21.

Martha's Vineyard ID Check
Luis Arias at Seafood Shanty in Edgartown, a popular night spot which has two new digital machines to check IDs. — Ray Ewing

Out of 15 checks at bars and package stores, he said, two establishments, Flatbread Company and Lure Grill, and one store, Sophia’s One Stop Mart, failed. He said this is down from the six or seven that failed last year.

“State Beach is a whole other issue,” the sergeant said. The police also went there to look for minors consuming alcohol, he said, and ended up summoning seven minors to court for possession of alcohol at the beach.

“It’s a problem in every community,” he said. “We might be a little bit different in the fact that we’re a resort community . . . we see IDs from all over the world.” European visitors, he added, have a younger drinking age back home.

He said enforcement and the computer checks are not a panacea. “It makes the game more difficult . . . where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Cases that have came to the Edgartown courthouse in the last few months show a glimpse of underage activity: an 18-year-old from New York caught trying to buy alcohol with a fake ID at Al’s Package Store; a 19-year-old from Vineyard Haven found with a bottle of rum; a 19-year-old from Milford trying to use a fake ID to buy a bottle of vanilla vodka.

The court has also had several recent cases of people charged with providing liquor to minors.

Safe at Home

The youth task force is backing several initiatives intended to curb underage drinking and access to alcohol at home, from friends and at stores and bars. The Safe Homes Pledge, which more than 200 families have signed, asks parents to pledge not to allow alcohol and drugs to be served to minors at their homes, that they will chaperone underage parties, and to acknowledge criminal and civil offenses that stem from serving alcohol to those younger than 21.

Under the state’s social host law, those who supply alcohol to those under 21 (except for their children or grandchildren) on premises under their control or ownership can face a fine of up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

The task force has also sponsored an anonymous tip line, 508-444-2YTF, which can be used to report underage parties or instances of restaurants serving alcohol to a minor.

The task force has also held workshops on underage party dispersal techniques, and during June and July, it holds a weekly TIPS Responsible Beverage Server Training program designed for those who work at restaurants and liquor stores to learn about safe alcohol serving, how to diffuse a situation and prevent drunk driving, and about carding.


Digital Carding

But a key change is the computerized ID authentication machines, made by a Medway-based company. At Al’s Package Store in Edgartown, a sign on the door reads “Advanced ID detection system in use at this location.”

As promised, a machine at the cash register can scan licenses, making it easier for employees to find fakes. “It detects all kinds of stuff, so it’s a whole lot easier,” said store owner Amy Look. “It’s hard to detect a fake ID if you don’t have the machine.”

The machine has been in place since early summer 2011. The first year, Ms. Look said, there wasn’t much of a difference. “This year, it’s probably doubled from last year as to the amount we’ve detected.”

Before the new system, she said, employees would use a large book to look up descriptions of driver’s licenses from different states — which tend to change often, she said, and can contain complex features like holograms.

Now, licenses are put into a small machine that looks like a credit card reader. On a computer screen, it shows the results of several indicators, including the age of the person, whether the license is expired, whether there is a bar code and magnetic strip and other features. The screen also shows a large picture of the person.

A green check mark indicates the license is legitimate. A red X shows if it is a fake.

“It helps,” Mrs. Look said. “It really is nice.”

When there’s a question about an ID, “we call the police and they take it from there,” she said.

“We’ve had kids as young as 17 years old with a fake ID,” she said. “It makes us feel good that we’re able to stop these kids from getting their hands on alcohol.”

The Seafood Shanty, a popular Edgartown restaurant with an open-air deck facing the harbor, has been using the card reading machines since last summer, and now has two on the premises.

“It’s just easier, it kind of a gives a peace of mind,” said manager Jasmine Godek. “We’re not worried about the IDs.”

When the red X shows up at the Seafood Shanty, the person is not served alcohol and the identification is confiscated, Ms. Godek said. An office at the restaurant features a display wall of bogus cards.

Before the machines, bartenders had to eyeball driver’s licenses to determine their veracity. “We have that eye, said Ms. Godek, who bartended at the Seafood Shanty for six years. “You see them . . . especially living here, a resort area, you get IDs from all over the place.”

But even so, some ID features are hard to determine with the naked eye. “You can’t tell,” she said.


Enforcement, Zero Tolerance

In Oak Bluffs, with its high concentration of popular night spots, there has also been an increase in calls from liquor stores for fake identification checks: 20 calls since May 1, with four arrests, according to police Lieut. Tim Williamson.

Confiscated Fake IDs on Martha's Vineyard
Fake IDs are confiscated at the Seafood Shanty and put on display. — Ray Ewing

During the same period last year, Lieutenant Williamson said, he found nine records of calls for fake IDs. From May 1 through Sept. 1 2011, there were 22 calls with four arrests.

“But we take enforcement action basically on every call,” Lieutenant Williamson said, with action ranging from an arrest to a court summons. One particularly powerful tool, he said, is filing paperwork to suspend the minor’s license.

The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABCC) and the Registry of Motor Vehicles have a zero tolerance policy, meaning that any person who manufactures, sells, uses or carries a fake driver’s license or false ID will have his or her RMV-issued ID card or driver’s license suspended for six months, regardless of the outcome of any criminal proceeding.

If convicted, Lieutenant Williamson said, the suspension can be extended to one year. Massachusetts has reciprocity with other states as well, so the suspension is extended to those from out-of-state.

“It seems to hit them where it hurts,” the lieutenant said. “Then they’re not getting a criminal record, affecting college applications and future employment.”

The key factor in determining what kind of action is taken, Mr. Williamson said, is whether they are “cooperative and truthful. We give them one opportunity to tell us the truth.”

He said the department used to be more proactive, conducting “cops in shops” operations to monitor liquor store parking lots and observe underage people buying alcohol, or people buying alcohol for minors. When the department first started filing paperwork to revoke licenses about 13 years ago, he said, he was told that Oak Bluffs filed more affidavits than all the other towns in the commonwealth combined.

Staffing and budget constraints have hindered those operations, he said. “Now we’re more reactive,” he said, noting the trend toward responding to calls for ID checks.

 Lieutenant Williamson agreed the new card readers have been a game changer, and they counter the rise in high-quality fake licenses, some running up to $200.

“But fakes are such high quality,” he said. “The naked eye can’t really pick up on it.”

While most calls come from package stores, “we’re seeing it at the bars,” he said. “It just goes along with the territory . . . we’re a resort community, a lot of young people want to come out here to enjoy the summer.”

He concluded: “The technology is out there [to create fake IDs]. But there’s also technology to combat it.”