Using Facial Features To Verify Photo IDs

by Joelle Steele

Checking IDs in retail stores, bars, and other establishments is often cause for alarm in the eyes of a consumer. Fear about identity theft is rampant and, in most cases, rightfully so. But properly checking ID can offer protection for both parties in any sales transaction. It helps assure the seller that the person with whom they are conducting business is the same person paying them by credit card or signing a contract, and it also helps assure the consumer that their credit card will be protected from unauthorized use.

I am an anthropometrist specializing in the analysis and comparison of facial features for the purpose of confirming or authenticating identities of people in photographs. When I go to a store and my ID is checked, I can tell that the clerk is making only the most minimal effort to verify my identity. Here's my advice on how to accurately check IDs.


Most ID checkers have the opportunity to look at driver's licenses, state identification cards, or even passports. If they are meticulous, they will ask the consumer to remove a card-type ID such as a driver's license from their wallet so that they can feel it and make sure it isn't a fake. This is very important. Then they check the expiration date and/or look at the birth date – if the transaction involves the sale of alcohol. Also important. They may additionally verify other things such as height/weight or hair color to see if they match the person. Good idea. Ditto with skin color and gender – yes, they really do need to be confirmed too. But when it comes to comparing the photo on the ID to the face right in front of them, they often drop the ball entirely, perhaps assuming that they are "done" after simply verifying the items noted on the ID.

But they are not done. Far from it. Before handing back the ID, most ID checkers take only a cursory glance at the face in the photo and that of the living person, and that superficial glimpse is never enough to verify the identity. People in general are very poor observers of faces, often seeing similarities that don't exist and not seeing the differences at all. Some people can look similar enough to someone that they try to use that person's ID – a common form of fraudulent use of ID – in the hope that the person checking ID will not notice the differences between the faces. Without close examination of facial features, ID checkers will inevitably miss the most important part of checking IDs.


The photos on IDs may be small, but to accurately identify a person based on a tiny photo is not that hard to do if you know what to look for. Since time is restricted when comparing photos to faces, it helps to look at the most obvious details that will indicate a match ... or not. Some things simply do not change in a face and are therefore very reliable indicators of a match between the face in the photo and the face of the living person. Once ID checkers understand just a few things about facial features, they can improve their ability to stop theft of credit cards and misuse of ID cards. Here are some guidelines for what to look at:

Irregularities. When comparing faces from photo to living person, it is important to understand that no face is ever 100% symmetrical. It may come close, but it is never exactly the same from one side to the other. Eyes, eyebrows, and ears can be slightly lower on one side. A mouth may droop slightly on one side. A nose may be off-center or point more to one side. In fact, the entire face shape can be irregular. So, if there is any irregularity in the face in the photo, that same irregularly should be evident in the face of the living person.

Face shape. Is the face oval, square, heart-shaped, long, narrow, or wide? Bones don't lie, and the underlying bone structure of the head is what determines face shape. Once you're an adult, that face shape is yours for life.

Ears. If the ears are showing in the photo, they should be examined on the person too. Ears are as unique as fingerprints. If they stick out in the photo, they should stick out on the person too. Ear piercings should also be considered if they are visible in the photo.

Hairlines. How high the hairline is on the forehead can be a good identifier. Hairlines in general are unique and especially helpful if they are uneven or if there is a widow's peak. Widow's peaks are hereditary and they are fully formed by the time a person is about 5 years old, and even in men with receding hairlines, the widow's peak is often still visible when they are 90!

Eyes. Eyes are generally our most noticeable feature, and it is pretty hard to make an error in ID if you really look carefully at the eyes. Are they far apart or close set? Are they deep set or heavily lidded? Are they round or narrow? What shape are the eyebrows and how thick are they?

Nose. Look at the length, width, and shape of the nose. Is it wide and short, long and thin, wide and long? Does it have a rounded tip, a pointed one, a square one?

Mouth. Are the lips average, thin, or large. Look at the peaks of the lips, the two points at the top of the upper lip. Sometimes this feature is not visible if a person is smiling, so comparing these might not always be possible. But, if they are visible, see if they are very clearly pointed or if they are very rounded. If the person is smiling in the photo, look at the teeth to see if they match those of the living person.

Chins. Some chins are very tiny and others give Jay Leno a run for his money. Is the chin wide, rounded, squared? Does it have a cleft? Like widow's peaks, clefts are hereditary, the result of an underlying cleft in the chin bone. Clefts don't disappear, but they are not always visible in photos.


When checking ID, some things are not reliable indicators of identity because they are so easily changed, for example, hair color (almost everyone dyes at some time or another), hair styles (they change regularly), eye color (think colored contact lenses), and eyeglasses (people frequently buy new frames). And some things are not clearly visible in a photo that may be visible in a person, and vice versa, such as freckles, moles, scars, acne, etc. In women, in particular, those facial skin markings can be easily disguised by the use of makeup. Focus instead on the above checklist, as those facial features remain constant throughout a person's life.


In an era where identity theft, credit card theft, and misuse of identification are everyone's daily concern, it is necessary to exercise vigilance in every way possible. Thoroughly checking IDs by comparing facial features is one highly reliable way to protect the security interests of both businesses and consumers.

This article last updated: 02/11/2006.

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