NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It's a rite of passage: turning 21, buying a beer or cocktail, and celebrating maturity. But scores of teens in Horry County want to start that celebration early.
"They ask you for a beer, they don't look at you straight - they turn the other way," says Harry Pieri, owner of Basil's Pizzeria in Cherry Grove. "I think it's a way of fitting in. They're thinking if they don't do it now, life's gonna end."
Harry says he deals with this almost every day.
"We get a few in here. They come in and say 'give me a beer.' We ask for ID, suddenly they say 'give me a coke,'" Harry explains. "We keep our guard up about drinking, because it only takes one."
That one mistake can have some serious consequences. WMBF News Reporter Will Whitson dug into just what one offense can mean for a kid drinking underage.
One drink means a fine of nearly $700 and up to a month in jail, but the time behind bars may not be the worst part.
Other consequences of getting caught drinking while underage include "scholarships they may lose, and all that money that comes with the scholarships," says Lance Corporal David King, member of North Myrtle Beach's alcohol enforcement team. "We try to warn them about all that."
Horry County's main industry is tourism. The sun, sand, and access to bars and liquor stores is a huge draw for high-school-age teens and college students. Since Horry County has its own unique draw for minors wanting to crack a beer, local law enforcement is coming up with unique ways to combat underage drinking.
"Last summer, the idea was in our director's box, he popped his head out of the sand, so to speak," says Lance Corporal David King.
King and his alcohol enforcement team head up the fight to keep minors, or their parents, from getting into trouble, and Horry County Sheriff's Officer Sgt. Jeff Benton organizes underage drinking stings county-wide.
"The reason it's been successful is, you've got a group of guys who are doing it from the heart, and not just a job," explains Sgt. Benton. "A student up in Green Sea isn't going to have the same opportunities as, say, a student down here at the beach at St. James or something."
Different areas provide more opportunities to kids. In North Myrtle Beach - where you have the seclusion of beach houses in Cherry Grove, but still have access to major roads, liquor stores, grocery stores, a teen can get in a lot of trouble.
Lance Corporal David King says the alcohol enforcement teams arrest about 12 out of every hundred minors they encounter drinking or purchasing alcohol. He says the objective is to educate them first, even if it means scaring them out of doing it again.
King describes when he caught one minor drinking, he "put him in cuffs, sat him in the back of a van, as he was going in there I allowed his mom to give him a kiss. She was bawling, cause this was real for her. Dad was crying, we put him in the back of the van so he could see what he put his family through. We left him in there for about 10 minutes. After we got done and explained what we would have done to him, I'm hoping it will be a life-changing experience for him."
"We've seen a decrease in assault and battery, sexual assaults, breaking and entering, all that stems from alcohol," King adds.
Another target: making sure bartenders and store clerks don't get complacent when asking for identification.
"They're so busy; sometimes they'll be overwhelmed by the number of customers," King says.
But are their efforts working?
We gave two of our employees - Mandy and Ethan - hidden cameras and sent them through North Myrtle Beach to see who would check the age on their driver's license.
On the first day, we went through the area the enforcement team says they've been in the most.
"Our main focus has been the north end to the main street of town," David King admits.
In each case - either the clerk or bartender asked Mandy for her ID. One even said he needed to check it because police were cracking down.
We tried again on a busy Saturday. When Mandy when to buy a beer at an outdoor beer tap they gave it to her without asking for any proof that she was legally old enough to imbibe.
Further down on Ocean Drive, in an area not as heavily patrolled by the team, Ethan entered the Cabana Mart Convenience Store to buy beer. The man behind the counter didn't ask for his ID.
The same cashier didn't ask for Mandy's ID either.
Reporter Will Whitson entered the store and asked the man why he didn't card them. He said it had been a while since he'd worked the cash register and didn't think of it.
Of the 16 stops Mandy and Ethan made over two days, there were only three instances where they weren't asked to show a driver's license or other identification, and most shops knew about the crackdown.
The officers on the alcohol enforcement team say they know the program's working, but for now, they're isolated to just North Myrtle Beach, and this is a fight that needs to be taken across the county.
"Last year, one Horry County municipality said we don't have a problem with underage drinking," David King laughs. "That's just - that's just sticking your head in the sand right there."