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The threat posed by the trade in stolen passports

Article, 16 November 2007
Domestic Security
This article examines the danger posed by stolen blank passports.

After finances, identity documents are the most important commodity for people and organisations intent upon committing crimes. Papers facilitate the ovement of people, vehicles, money, and materiel across borders and through inspection points. For these reasons, document fraud is of particular concern — and of all the types of fraudulent papers, passports are the most worrisome.

Passport fraud has been linked to both criminal and terrorist activities. Drug smuggling, arms trafficking and prostitution, as well as trafficking in people, have increasingly been tied to the use of fraudulent papers. Such documents have also been used by social refugees and economic migrants in illegal work schemes and the grey market economy. Their use is not limited solely to those with criminal objectives; many times fake passports have been used by those seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families.

At an increasing rate, stolen passports are becoming a matter of concern to domestic and international security agencies. The accession of 10 new states to the European Union (EU) has hastened this debate, even though internal borders new and old members will remain in place for the time being. In the past, fraudulent passports were more likely to be counterfeit or doctored. These days, the greatest threat is coming from the theft of state-issue legal blank passports. All the new owner has to do is complete the document. This has been termed the "most frightening"1 form of passport fraud.

Counterfeit passports are nearly always caught by airport security and screening, although it has been reported that each passport receives less than 60 seconds' inspection. Whereas only the very best forgeries can elude detection, travelling on a stolen passport is extremely difficult to detect. Those with stolen documentation are usually only given away by a mistake when the passport was being filled out or if the passport has been listed in a database of stolen papers.2

Some recent examples

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a classified bulletin earlier this year alerting the law enforcement community to stolen French passports. French authorities notified the US Embassy in Paris on 3 February that 6,300 blank passports had been stolen. A week later, a further 3,000 were missing.

According to the FBI bulletin, the theft also included "5,000 blank French driver's licenses, 10,000 blank car ownership certificates, 25 titres de voyages (Geneva Convention travel documents) and 1,000 international driver's licenses without any identification numbers".3

The FBI bulletin added that the stolen French passports "are of particular concern"4 because France is one of 27 nations that participate in the US Visa Waiver Program. As a participant nation, individuals traveling on a French passport are not required to gain a visa prior to entry into the US.

Tom Ridge, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced in mid-April that someone had tried to use one of the passports mentioned in the FBI bulletin to enter the US.

On 17 April, US Customs agents at John F Kennedy airport in New York stopped an Algerian man from entering the US on one of the stolen French passports. ABC News reported: "The man — who was travelling with a French national of Algerian decent who is a suspect on a US government watch list — admitted that he bought the passport for US$300 on the black market. Both men were deported."5

At the time, a French police officer commented that as these documents are extremely valuable, they could easily be resold to others, including "organised groups who would need fakes".6

Under Secretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson recently expressed his concerns about the stolen passports possibly being either used by terrorists or by terrorist fundraisers.

Hutchinson, who is responsible for border security at the DHS, stated: "They can sell it for money to finance their operations… And secondly, they can use stolen passports to get their operatives into another country, or at least attempt to."7

It gets worse in France...

On 22 July 2003, 5,000 blank passports were stolen near Marseille in southern France when two armed men hijacked the van that was transporting the documents. Several hundred more were stolen on 10 September that year from a courier service near Lyon.8

The July theft from the French national passport office prompted the US Department of State to issue a warning to consular officers and border security posts to be on the watch for the stolen documents.9

Some 1,000 blank passports from the batch taken in July have since been recovered; investigators arrested two men who, they allege, were planning to sell each passport for EUR650 (US$771), less than half the usual EUR1,525-EUR2,300 that such blank documents usually fetch.10

This phenomenon is by no means limited to French passports. Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and South Africa have all suffered. The Australian National Audit Office reported 32,497 passports were reported lost or stolen in the year from June 2001 to 2002.11 Even Israeli passports have been stolen.

In fact, EU passports and identity cards have become the world's most popular travel documents to forge, counterfeit, or steal.12 This is in large part due to the removal of internal border controls within the EU, as well as the fact that EU passports enable the bearer to travel visa-free to large parts of the globe.

Interpol has estimated that a possible "1.1 million travel documents, including passports"13 are unaccounted for, either stolen or lost. According to ABC News, intelligence officials say that 80,000 blank passports have been stolen from 36 countries over recent years.

Measures to prevent passport fraud

Belgium has taken dramatic steps in recent years to stem the abuse of its passports. Belgian passports were found on the bodies of two Tunisian men who assassinated the leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Masood, on 9 September 2001. These passports were reported to have been stolen from Belgian consulates in The Hague in the Netherlands and Strasbourg in France. Terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was caught in December 1999 while carrying explosives from Canada to the US in the boot of his car, was also reported to have used a stolen Belgian passport at one time.

Even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Belgium introduced one of the most secure passports in the world. In addition to a series of redundant and advanced security features — including micro-printing, digitalised images, a laser-cut pinhole image of the passport bearer, a watermark and an optically variable image — these passports carry a graphic instruction page indicating to security officials certain features to look for in the bearer.

Then there is 'Braingate', the nickname given to the Belgian national police's massive database of over 1.4 million missing and stolen travel documents from around the world. Belgium is a leader in the field of passport security — clamping down not only on the abuses of its own documents but also working to tighten global loopholes.14

However, not all countries are following the Belgian example. Interpol Secretary General Robert Noble told the Associated Press in an interview that only 34 countries have agreed to share information on missing blank passports.15

He added that the co-operating countries, approximately 20% of Interpol's 181 membership, report about 80,000 stolen blank passports; the global figure may be as high as 400,000.

Noble has urged more countries to work alongside Interpol in sharing information. As proof of its benefits, he cited the facts behind Italy's recent decision to share data. After reporting 200,000 missing travel documents, police around the world began making arrests within 48 hours.16

Indeed, the most effective method of dealing with the illegal use of stolen blank passports is to tighten the security around the documents before they are issued, and to foster greater co-operation in suspect passport databases. Nations need to be encouraged to participate in these programmes. As Interpol's Noble stated: "The best security for your own passports is to warn others when they disappear."17

The G8 (Group of Eight) industrialised nations have agreed to share information on stolen passports. The topic has been pencilled onto the agenda for the June G8 summit. "We will work on increasing international participation in the database regarding lost and stolen blank passports," US Attorney General John Ashcroft stated in mid-May.18

When it comes to the use of a stolen passport, the most cunning users of such a document recognise that its value lies in using it as soon as possible. Several days after blank passports were stolen in France, the numbers will have hopefully been added to databases of stolen passports. Whether these databases are checked by the appropriate border officials — or whether they even have access to such resources — is another question entirely.

Those wanting to use a stolen passport recognise that its utility lies in passing through the next passport control and then discarding the document. As this is something that must be accomplished rapidly, it is not a way to hide or to create a secondary identity. Moreover, since this is merely a temporary solution, there will a persistent market demand for more stolen passports. By tightening controls and reporting thefts of passports, the international community can crack down on this ominous form of deceit.

Christopher Boucek is editor of RUSI/Jane's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor

* additional contributions from Ben Vogel

1 Jeff Goodell, 'How to Fake a Passport,' New York Times Magazine, 10 February 2002.

2 Ibid.

3 'FBI warns of Stolen French Passports,' Fox News, 15 April 2004.

4 'Tools for Terrorists,' ABC News, 26 April 2004.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid..

8 Ibid. Available at abcnews.go.com/sections/WNT/ WorldNewsTonight/stolen_passports040426.html.

9 'Terror alert over stolen passports,' CNN.com, 9 August 2003, available at edition.cnn.com/2003/US/08/09/passports.stolen.

10 'French police recover over 1,000 stolen passports,' Agence France-Presse, 31 October 2003.

11 Brendan Nicholson, 'Alarm on stolen passports,' The Age (Melbourne), 27 April 2003.

12 Thomas Fuller, 'EU Passports: An Easy-to-Steal Tool for Terrorists,' International Herald Tribune, 8 January 2002.

13 Tools for Terrorists," op. cit.

14 "How to Fake a Passport," op. cit.; and 'EU Passports: An Easy-to-Steal Toll for Terrorists,' op. cit.

15 Mort Rosenblum, 'Interpol: Stolen passports aiding terrorists,' Associated Press, 27 February 2004.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 'Nation Vows Passport Aid,' Washington Post, 12 May 2004.

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