A long time ago, when I was a young and helpful college student, I discovered that many of my classmates shared a common dilemma: their drivers licenses had their birthdates mistakenly listed as two or three years too late. Good and meticulous fellow that I was, I broke out the dry transfer sheets and clear book tape and set to work correcting this oddly common error. My growing band of friends compensated me generously for my time and trouble. Inevitably, though, the craftsman was rendered obsolete by an industrial revolution — a freshman set up a Polaroid-based operation that would have shamed any Department of Motor Vehicles, and set about more efficiently correcting birthdates. Now, it seems, that overseas competition has come to even this field. Foreign companies, many of them in China, have taken to the Internet to offer ... corrected drivers licenses indistinguishable from products offered by government agencies. Of course, the government has done its best to fuel this transformation.

Reports NJ101.5:

No longer the domain of backroom cottage industries, this fake document business is state of the art.

The documents are being peddled from websites overseas…many in China. Their holograms, even the PVC plastic on the cards, has been faithfully replicated. Andrew Meehan of the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License says they are so good that when scanned by a machine, the fake is going to come up as a valid I-D when the so-called, “machine readable zone” is scanned.

USA Today has more:

The overseas forgers are bold enough to sell their wares on websites, USA TODAY research finds. Anyone with an Internet connection and $75 to $200 can order their personalized ID card online from such companies as ID Chief. Buyers pick the state, address, name and send in a scanned photo and signature to complete their profile.

ID Chief, whose website is based in China, responds personally to each buyer with a money-order request.

The stories are full of warnings about the terrorist threat from something called the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License — a group that screeches on its Website that "implementation of the REAL ID regulations for licenses is being vigorously opposed by well-funded special interest and extremist groups campaigning against it at the state level." And yes, there are good reasons to be able to reliably identify people in some circumstances, like accessing a safe deposit box or entering a secure facility.

But there's a reason that fake IDs have gone from underground craft project to big business, and it's the same reason that has transformed drivers licenses from the unlaminated slips of paper with no photos that some states were still issuing in the early 1980s to the hologram-emblazoned high-tech documents we get now. Not long ago, you really didn't need identification documents for much more than driving, financial transactions — and then, suddenly, buying a beer. If you used cash, you could otherwise move through your day pretty anonymously. Now, ID cards are mandatory to apply for a job, to buy a train ticket and even to purchase cold medicine.

In the space of a generation or two, the United States has gone from an open society to "papers, please" — but the "please" ain't so sincere.

So, of course providing fake identification documents has become a sophisticated business. Pointing to one emergency after another, from terrorism to immigration, the government has made ID cards a necessity for everyday life. That means rising demand, and that means somebody steps in to meet that demand.

And I'm not above saying that I'm glad that "corrected" documents remain available.