ID fraud protection: Tampering and transparent elements


​​​​ID theft

Last updated 15 November 2017

​ID fraud more sophisticated than ever

Many readers will be familiar with the story of American teenager Frank Abagnale. Famously played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can, back in the sixties Frank successfully stole numerous identities, and millions of dollars, using nothing more sophisticated than doctored licenses and fake checks.

The days of such low-tech deception are long gone. 

Unfortunately, for government institutions, the challenges posed by ID fraud and forgery are now more sophisticated and much more serious than ever.

Why's that?

To start with, technology that is initially sophisticated and exclusive can become mainstream within a matter of a few years.

As a result, counterfeiters are able to get their hands on high resolution printing equipment and some basic security inks by simply ordering them over the Internet. Added to that, fraudsters' imagination and determination appear limitless. ID document forgery is therefore continually evolving; public authorities currently face threats that include simulating optical variable devices (OVD​), grinding to access the core of a document, falsification by overprint, high quality “intaglio printing​” look-alike in fake passports​ or adding laser engraved personalization to name a few.

Episode 1: Tampering and transparent elements

This article – the first in a new series – looks at how the latest generation of 'Frank Abagnales' is attempting to change the data on existing identity documents. But we'll also show that if documents such as drivers' licenses and ID cards are manufactured in a secure way, this type of attack will visibly change their structure.

We'll also explain how resistance can be further enhanced by the use of transparent security features that run through the entire structure of the document.

But let's start with a quick catch-up.  

​​​​​What is tampering?

Tampering of security documents involves the intentional change of personalized data. Fraudsters typically find this an easier option than preparing a fake ID document from scratch, or getting hold of a genuine blank document.

Methods typically used in tampering are:

  • scratching
  • dissolving
  • cutting
  • opening by means of heat, solvents, and tools
  • adding a foil on top of the card with the impostor's data

A solid, mono-block document with protected edges and built-in security features represents an efficient ID fraud protection weapon for fighting such threats.

Furthermore, a document incorporating good tamper evidence clearly reveals any attempt to alter the data. Changes may uncover in the card thickness and edges, and the integrity of the surface, gloss and color shades. 

ID theft protection
  A document with good tamper evidence will reveal any attempt to alter ID data.

ID fraud protection super hero: Polycarbonate

Introduced over twenty years ago, polycarbonate is an increasingly popular choice for ID documents in many countries across the world. That's because it significantly enhances the ID document's level of resistance to forgery.

What makes polycarbonate so special?

What sets it apart from other materials is the non-delaminable property of a full polycarbonate ID card.

When used in pure form, laminated under heat and pressure without adhesives, and not mixed with other plastics, the different layers of polycarbonate that make up the identity document fuse together to form a solid monolithic structure.

Guess what…it's the same material used to make bulletproof glass.

And you can hear the difference: polycarbonate cards are so rigid they sound like a compact disc when dropped.

So what's the real story here?

It is impossible to separate the layers of polycarbonate when fused. Which is one of the reasons why polycarbonate is so secure: the intertwined layers of plastic make it virtually impossible to swap document information or photos without completely destroying the document and making it useless.

The layered structure is also ideally suited to the deployment of security features which can be safely located and protected within a genuine polycarbonate ID.

Take it from us. Polycarbonate is more secure.

Solutions to tampering

Some of the most effective solutions to tampering can be found in security features that go through the entire structure, and/or are an integral part of the document.

They make it easy to detect unauthorized access, change and alteration of the protected ID.

In polycarbonate cards, a widely used element to prevent the surface from being tampered with is positive or negative embossing. This can be in the form of lenses, fine lines and micro text, as well as tactile personalization.


 Another extremely useful tool is provided by see-through elements, commonly referred to as "windows".

Let's see why these built-in solid features have an important role to play, and look at some examples.  

3-5 seconds to check an ID

In situations where identification is checked, the time available for the inspection of the document is typically no longer than 3-5 seconds.

'Level one' features, which are those visible to the naked eye​, are therefore particularly valuable for ID fraud detection. Crucially, they can be used to guarantee the authenticity of the document and integrity of the personalized data - instantly and without special tools.

Transparent and semi-transparent elements fall into this category, and are being deployed ever more widely.

From banknotes…

The deployment of window features in security printed products was first seen in polymer banknotes.

Polymer banknotes made from biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) have been in use since the 1980s. Yet the number of countries choosing the material as the basis of their currency is still increasing.

Nowadays, window security features also exist in paper banknotes; examples of such materials are Optiks™ by De La Rue and varifeye® from Louisenthal.

Here's a good example:

The £5 banknote introduced by the Bank of England in September 2016 illustrates perfectly the power of polymer.

This new 'fiver' has a number of security features. They include a see-through window and a foil representation of the Elizabeth Tower which is gold on the front of the note and silver on the back.​

In March 2015, Ontario unveiled new polymer birth certificates, designed to be more secure and  more resistant to damage, fading and moisture.

…to ID documents

Beyond banknotes, the use of the window feature has also spread into laminated identity documents. Initially this was as a simple see-through element.

The strong performance of the window feature in resisting fraud and forgery can be explained by three major benefits:

  1. It is immediately recognized by the human eye and intuitively understood as we can see in the example of Gemalto's Window.
  2. The window is fully integrated into the card structure, joining front and reverse sides of the card together.
  3. Tampering with personalized data in a window unavoidably leaves evidence in the form of scratches, seams, color changes, or altered thickness.

The window feature offers a range of both standard and special functions.


 A transparent opening that is virtually impossible to delaminate or fake.

The most basic function is obvious. As a see-through element, it is an 'eye catcher' that enables instant inspection of the entire layer structure.

But the real potential of a window lies in its versatility. When combined with other security features, interesting special functions are composed. These include:

  • lenses
  • decoder
  • metalized foils
  • various types of security printing
  • personalization

Personalization of the window feature can be performed by means of laser engraving and complemented with surface positive or negative embossing on the same surface, making the full use of strong tactile effects. In addition, the personalized photo can be created as a positive or negative image, and as either a full-size or smaller ghost image.

In cards, the window is typically a stand-alone security feature. In a banknote substrate or a passport, a window can also be used for self-authentication purposes (for example, the Swedish passport that implements a decoder lens).

​Gemalto's Window Lock represents a further enhancement of the window feature.

Window Lock is a new security concept. It is designed to protect the holder's portrait against any subsequent change by means of an additional laser personalized portrait.

Developed in Switzerland by Trüb, now part of Gemalto, the technology is based on a sophisticated laser ablation personalization process on a metallic foil which is integrated into a transparent window. A ghost image is laser personalized into the metal foil so that a simultaneous manipulation of the card holder's portrait and ghost image after issuance of the document will leave visible traces.

Macao’s new generation of contactless eID cards

If you're asking yourself how to slash ID fraud and therefore curb ID theft, Gemalto's Window Lock can be a great security feature as here on the Macau resident ident​​ity card.

It implements a "negative" personalization process where the light-colored image is personalized by metal ablation. Hence, a fraudulent manipulation of the card holder portrait can be easily detected.

Window Lock presents a highly innovative security concept that is easy to understand and verify. As a result, it further increases the security level of travel and identity documents.

So what's the future of the window feature?

Because there are several manufacturing technologies for windows, there are a number of different possibilities for the development of this feature in the years ahead.

Furthermore, a window feature is not limited to just one card material, or any specific card structure. Even when not combined with other security features, changes can be made to:

  • the shape
  • the location on the card
  • the size of the window
  • the number of windows in the document
  • creation of 3D effects in the window

ID protection ​

And that's not all.

Transparent elements and ID security design

The window does not have to be a visually detached element somewhere on the card layout. It can also be an elegant part of it, whilst still maintaining security.

Completely new designs approaches can be realized utilizing windows. For example, multiple windows can be combined to create new images.

All these possibilities create new, interesting security features based on transparency.

Given this degree of flexibility, there can be no doubt that the use of transparency in ID cards is here to stay.

ID fraud prevention  

Do you think transparent elements can help you design a more secure ID?

At Gemalto, we believe in taking a global approach to security. That's why we strive to provide durable and innovative solutions to improve security, slash ID fraud and identity theft.  

We offer extensive experience and support, enabling our customers to meet their expectations for distinctive IDs that are as secure as they are attractive.

Collaboration with customers lies at the heart of our process and we will be pleased to share with you some of our best practices in ID security design.

If you have a question on transparent elements, or have simply enjoyed reading our article, please leave a comment in the box below.

We look forward to hearing from you.

​​From identity fraud to identity theft

Finally, a word of warning.

Forgery is considered a felony, a serious category of crime, in many countries around the world. It is punishable by penalties including jail sentences, fines, probation, and restitution (compensating for money or goods stolen as a result of the forgery).

Some states in the US treat ID fraud very seriously, particularly with reference to drivers' licenses or other forms of state issued identification. Punishments typically run to several years in prison. If the ID belongs to someone else and you use it for financial purposes, you may also be charged with identity theft. ​​​