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A New Dimension: Nabbing Forgers While-U-Wait

(September 2007) Scenario 2007: You’re a Federal field agent who investigates cybercrime and identity theft. Your boss tosses you a credit card and barks, “We’ve nabbed a punk. Check this out.” You squint at the plastic, turning it in your fingers. You can see the “optical variable device”—the hologram. Is it authentic? Unsure, you bag it and send it through a lengthy chain of custody to a forensic lab in Washington, DC. Your answer arrives … two weeks later.

Scenario 2008: With the help of a new technology developed by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, the verdict on that credit card is in—in 30 minutes.

The new technology is a revolutionary suite of three-dimensional scanners created with California startup Third Ring, with guidance from DHS law-enforcement investigators. Using modified low-cost flatbed scanners and smart software, these scanners will help agents quickly spot a counterfeit driver’s license, credit card, passport, birth certificate—any document but currency. One scanner even plays back the hologram image as a movie.

How it works: Tell the scanner what kind of card or document you’re about to scan, and its software will calibrate the speed, brightness, contrast, and color palette to make its security feature(s) stand out. These are features such as microprinted text, multihued watermarks, or fibers that glow under ultraviolet light. You compare the scan with a baseline, or “exemplar.” If a feature is missing, you have a forgery.

The system’s crown jewel would make CSI’s forensic examiners drool: a hologram scanner called the Optical Variable Device Station. It can’t project a volumetric display like the 3-D objects in the Enterprise’s holodeck. But it can capture, from every viewing angle, a hologram’s “motion” and colors—features that, before now, were impossible—to many, unthinkable—to capture.

The hologram is illuminated by a swift-changing star pattern of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) (see the photos). As the LEDs fire, a digital camera shoots a series of images. The images are stacked like movie frames into an animated GIF movie—an electronic flip card; its movement—or dead stillness—serves as an optical lie detector.

“When you have a fake, it really leaps out,” says John B. Price, the program manager at the Directorate. “When you try to see the motion, it just won’t move. This is while-you-wait service.”

Armed with these scans, you can reasonably decide whether the document is a fraud. If in doubt, you email the files (securely) to Washington for a half-hour verdict.

In 2005, ten systems were field-tested in three major cities. Their surpassing performance caught the eye of several Federal law-enforcement agencies, which have since run field trials. Using the system’s many modules, agents can now unmask forgery not only in a document’s fibers or a bank card’s hologram, but also in a package’s bar code … or a bank card’s magnetic stripe.

Is the stripe scanner smarter than an ATM? “Bank on it,” says Price.

Last Updated: 12/04/2023
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