Thermal Ribbon Analysis Platform (TRAP)

Fake IDs: Just for Fun or Something Sinister?
Recovering actionable information from used printer ribbons

When you hear the phrase “fake ID,” you might think of teenagers trying to buy beer or slip into a club. It may surprise you to learn, however, that many fake identifications (driver's licenses, passports, employment badges, birth certificates, and more) are created for a host of criminal and terrorist-related activities. Armed with relatively new, cheap, and readily available printing technology, counterfeiters are creating a host of licenses, passports, employment badges, and other documents that facilitate access to people, places, and sensitive information.

It’s not cut and paste anymore

Many of the printers used for creating these documents use thermal transfer technology. This technology uses a heat-based process to transfer dye from a ribbon to a substrate such as a blank document or plastic card. These printouts can be black and white or full color, and may include gold or silver overlays that are intended to bolster “authenticity” under normal circumstances. The ribbons are one-time use and are typically discarded when the ribbon is spent.

Fortunately, this kind of technology provides a special opportunity to the forensics community.

Turning negatives into positives

Every used thermal ribbon contains “negatives” of the printed images. Any image printed with a thermal ribbon printer can be recovered from the used ribbons, whether it’s a photo, document, ID badge, or something completely different. This is not a new idea, and it only takes an image scanner and image editing software.

Unfortunately, it also takes a LOT of patience. Traditional methods for image recovery are tricky and involve manually scanning the ribbon. Examiners must painstakingly unwrap the ribbon, scan it, adjust it, identify the next section and scan it, and stitch the images together. A single ribbon can take several days to scan and process.

In response, TSWG and the U.S. Secret Service contracted Quantum Signal in 2011 to develop a solution to this slow and tedious process.

It’s a TRAP!

The result of this initiative is TRAP: Thermal Ribbon Analysis Platform. Quantum Signal’s remarkable TRAP system is a forensic-focused desktop device that enables extremely fast, efficient, and automatic recovery of data on thermal mass transfer (TMT) or dye diffusion thermal transfer (D2T2) ribbons. TRAP can scan an average ribbon in less than two hours (start to finish) and provide a wealth of information, including unretouched source imagery and complete recomposed images.

TRAP is simple to operate and requires no special training or expertise. The web-based interface is user-friendly and easy to navigate.

Should you get TRAPped?

If you’re a forensic organization that engages in the recovery and analysis of counterfeit documents, TRAP is for you. If you’re an intelligence organization seeking to recover data from a used thermal ribbon, TRAP is for you. If you’re accountable for the security badges that are printed in your office, TRAP is for you. If you need to recover lost critical documents that were produced by a thermal ribbon printer, TRAP is for you.

Features at a Glance

  • Very fast, high-quality scanning of thermal ribbons with up to 600 dpi.
  • Hardware and software support for a wide variety of ribbon types. TRAP accommodates over 90% of the ribbons on the market. If TRAP doesn’t accommodate your ribbon, QS can build a custom adapter for your specific type!
  • Supports typewriter ribbon scanning.
  • On-board software technology that allows any authorized user with a web browser to control TRAP from their desktop. Supports multiple users in a networked environment, or acts as a stand-alone system.
  • Automatic recomposition of printed images from multiple panels with easy viewing.