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FEATURED ARTICLE | High-Tech Check

June 9, 2009 By: Michael Harrelson


Time was when a nightclub or bar’s best defense against underage individuals trying to get into their venue and partake of some adult libations was a no-nonsense bouncer with keen eyesight outside and a bartender or cocktail server inside with the wherewithal to ask for and carefully scrutinize an ID. Today, both those folks are still crucial to the process, but their efforts are now supported by age identification technology that ranges from wristbands with a wire sensor that sends out a signal when tampered with to a scanner that can see in the dark.

Not only can high-tech systems for checking IDs prevent the underage crowd from crashing the party – which can result in fines and the possible loss of a valuable liquor license not to mention untold beverage revenues -- but they may also serve as the house’s best insurance against the subsequent jeopardy that comes with the youngster who might actually slip inside. In many states and localities, the mere fact that an owner employs equipment to verify a patron’s age and identity is often enough to mitigate fines or punitive measures that might otherwise apply.

Although the hospitality industry is still some years away from embracing the biometrics -- eye and facial recognition applications -- identification and age-verification technology continues to advance. Keeping out 19-year-old college kids armed with fake IDs often purchased on the Internet for as much as $2,200 each, as well as other troublemakers is getting increasingly difficult. Tapping into emerging technologies, high-tech age verification has gone from magnetic strip readers to bar code scanners and beyond; some magnetic bar code devices also capture data that can be stored in a database for future reference and, where legal, marketing (more on that in a bit).

The innovation does not stop there. Many ID systems can also take a photo of the patron presenting the ID to further validate the identification process. Some new handheld scanning systems are quickening the checking process; the wireless approach allows ID verification in a matter of seconds without it ever leaving the presence of the patron presenting it or the checker being tied to a kiosk or desk. These units are also especially convenient for clubs with multiple entrances.

For those with limited space or budgets, seamless software applications that work with almost any POS system can protect the profit and the reputation of a venue just as well as any beefy bouncer. Still others can make the effort a community one by harnessing the power and databases of many clubs together with links that notify an operator when someone banned from the club across town makes an appearance at their door.

Expert Advice

Robert Smith, a San Diego police detective and owner of Nightclub Security Consultants (nightclubsecurity.com), a consulting firm that advises the nightclub and bar industry on a range of security issues including identity and age substantiation, says owners and operators have their work cut out for them these days. Thanks to technology and increasingly inventive young people, combating underage drinking and keeping minors out of their businesses is a huge challenge for today’s upstanding operator.

“It’s a steep curve. The big new thing out there is borrowed IDs,” he says. “The [verification] technology has gotten sophisticated enough now to catch fake IDs, but if there is a new scam, they do not always know how to deal with it.”

Not only does Smith recommend age verification equipment to bar and club owners as “another tool to control underage drinking,” but he also recommends its use at all times when a venue is open to the public, not just on a busy Saturday night.  “If you have this equipment, and your employees are not using it, you are just as guilty as the operator who does not have age verification equipment at all,” says Smith.

While the addition of on-the-spot photos to the ID checking process is a welcome improvement that will definitely deter identity fraud, Smith says multi-faceted systems of identification verification may help operators even more in the long run.

One such system is the TreoScope software, created by TreoScope Technologies, a Vancouver-based software company. “Their devices are different,” Smith says. “They actually scan the front and back of an ID in a matter of seconds, and they do not pull from bar codes and magnetic strips. Through their software, the scanners check to see that the colors, spaces, fonts and type of print used on an ID are correct.” In addition to capturing the image of the presenter, Smith says the system also can extract data, providing any number of marketing possibilities for the venue using the software.

In fact, this may be one of the most exciting new frontiers of identification technology yet. Imagine the potential of using ID information to support marketing efforts or to single out certain repeat patrons for special VIP treatment. Such data gathering and use – including several clubs linking to share demographic and behavioral information on patrons -- may not be legal in some states, however.

“No one has really done the homework on that,” Smith says. “In certain states, [the information] can be used for mailers and such but operators need to remember that when a resident is issued a driver’s license, they sign a document stating that it is illegal for the information to be given out or shared by someone else.”

While age verification technologies do improve the effectiveness of the ID check, Smith says none of the systems currently available is foolproof. However, infallible age verification systems are not far from being a reality.

“There is age verification technology already available to club owners called BioBouncer,” Smith says, referring to a system from JAD Communications & Security Company. “It’s the first facial recognition ID technology for nightclubs. Say I walk into a club and my ID is scanned for the first time, my image is captured up to 40 times by a camera. Once I walk out, it is captured again and stored in a database. The next time I walk in, the camera picks me up. This takes multiple ID checks out of it, and also, the troublemaker is removed.”

The costs associated with BioBouncer have made the technology impractical for widespread application thus far, but Smith anticipates it becoming attainable within five years.

Wake-up Call

John Robinson, CEO of ID Pro in Dallas, and the maker of age verification software widely marketed to the hospitality sector, offers a sober assessment of underage drinking in the United States.

“Ninety percent of all actionable calls to law enforcement concerning underage drinking come from within a one-mile radius of college campuses,” Robinson says.

Yet thanks to a program initiated by the state of Texas called Safe Harbor, club owners who use his ID Pro software or other such technology to police their venues for underage patrons are making headway both in being responsible operators and in limiting their own liability should illicit beverage service occur.

“If an operator is using age verification technology to screen for underage patrons,” Robinson says, “that moderates any action taken by the authorities, even though the responsibility for serving underage guests rests solely on the shoulders of the club owner.”

In the case of Razzoo’s Cajun Café, with 13 restaurants in Texas and North Carolina, area director Garret Brooks says his brand found out the hard way about the importance of using reliable age verification equipment.

“What prompted us to get the Trident AV software was an incident where we had a couple of girls go into one of my restaurants,” Brooks says. “The bartender checked their IDs, and they looked like they were of age, but they came back a week later, and the bartender remembered them and did not check their IDs the second time. The police showed up, and the girls told them, ‘No, they did not card us,’ and ‘No, we are not of age.’ The fake IDs looked real, but that did not stop the police from arresting the bartender and the girls.”

Thankfully, not every day is as traumatic for Brooks or his staff of mostly young bartenders, but he says the Trident AV system — which involves staff swiping the ID on POS terminals in all restaurants except the store one store in North Carolina – pays its way every day.

Trident software, which Robinson says was written based on feedback from bartenders, law enforcement and others concerned with underage consumption, rather than by software developers alone, also works well when someone walks out on a check. “We can pull their name and address from our data base,” Brooks says. 

Initially, Brooks says, underage patrons tested the system with false IDs, but word soon got around that they were serious about who could drink at Razzoo’s. “In the beginning, we had quite a few instances of minors attempting to buy alcohol, but we quickly built a reputation that we check IDs, and we find that it happens less and less. Now it is pretty rare.” NCB


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