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Scanners fail to read new licenses Stores can't verify ages of customers

A new design for the state's driver's license is causing headaches for thousands of store owners who are finding that the licenses do not work in the main scanner device used to verify ages of customers trying to buy alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

The problem has begun appearing in stores throughout the state since the Department of Motor Vehicles on Sept. 16 started offering the new enhanced driver's license, which can be used instead of a passport to cross into Canada.

But the situation, part of a design change demanded by federal officials as part of a deal to permit New York to offer the new, higher-security enhanced licenses, also affects standard driver's licenses and nondriver identification documents issued by DMV, which also have the new designs.

Retailers say the situation has reduced their ability to ensure that minors are not using fake documents to buy cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, and thus raises their potential legal problems with the state for selling such products to under-age consumers.

Without the help of the age-verification devices, store owners say, they are refusing to make some sales unless younger-looking customers have other forms of identification.

"The liability falls on us if anything happens," said Katie Wagner, vice president of the holding company that owns Yellow Goose and Arrow Mart convenience stores in Western New York.

State officials say the situation likely won't be fixed until after the first of the year. Critics said it is a prime example of what happens when state agencies don't communicate and coordinate their efforts.

The snafu began when DMV altered the bar code design on the back of licenses in mid-September.

The scanner device that is unable to read the new bar codes is supplied to 16,000 retailers in New York by the state Lottery. The lottery agency several years ago introduced the new machines as a way to verify that customers buying a lottery ticket are at least 18 years old. Since then, retailers also have relied on the machines to ensure they are not selling tobacco products to anyone under age 18 and alcoholic beverages to those under 21.

Of course, a clerk can still look at the driver's license to read the individual's name and date of birth. But retailers say the machine reading the license bar code performs a couple of important tasks.

Industry officials say they have been told by the state that the devices verify that the license is not fake -- something a store worker cannot do. DMV officials, however, disputed that claim, saying the devices read a bar code that provides only age information about the holder. Retailers, however, say that if someone altered the front of a license, the devices would help catch such a change, for example, to someone's birth date.

When a license is scanned into the device, the customer's age -- in years and months -- is displayed. The store worker can then further verify that the customer is the actual owner of the license by checking the photograph, eye color and height.

Without the machines, which also help speed up checkout lines, retailers say they cannot be certain the licenses have not been fraudulently produced.

"It does increase our exposure to the risk of inadvertent sales of tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets to an underage customer," said James Calvin, executive director of the New York State Association of Convenience Stores. He noted that as few as two sales to minors over a three-year period, even if unintentional, can cost a store its tobacco and lottery license.

Calvin said lottery devices have become "an integral part" of the age-verification process.

"To lose that tool puts the stores at a disadvantage," he said.

And with stores now having to be more careful about age verification without the devices, Calvin said some customers of legal age will be turned away from buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Lottery officials say they were told about the design changes by the DMV only a month ago -- even though DMV has been working on the effort since the beginning of the year. That was too late, lottery officials said, for technicians to include the software changes -- needed for the devices to be able to read the new licenses -- as part of a routine quarterly update the agency transmits to its 16,000 terminals around the state.

John Charlson, a lottery spokesman, said the fix for the problem will not be available until January.

Calvin praised the lottery agency for moving to resolve the issue.

"It's too bad DMV didn't let the Lottery Division know what was going on," he said.

"We have been in discussion with lottery," said DMV spokesman Ken Brown.

Brown said the change was required as part of the state's agreement with Washington to begin offering the enhanced driver's licenses, which allow New Yorkers to cross into Western Hemisphere nations without a passport. In the first few weeks, 4,500 New Yorkers have gotten the enhanced licenses -- including 1,300 from Erie and Niagara counties.

On the back of the licenses, two bar codes were replaced with one, giving space at the bottom of the new licenses for passport-resembling bits of information required by the federal government for border crossings.

To make all licenses consistent, the DMV applied the changes to all its various licenses.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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