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Counterfeit Passports For Sale

Counterfeit Passports For Sale


by Richard S. Ehrlich


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BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. and Thai security officials spent much of June probing Bangkok-linked international gangs, after police seized thousands of counterfeit and genuine American and foreign passports and pages, including passports smuggled to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Investigators enjoyed a morale boost in mid-June when U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey visited Bangkok, but no breakthrough was announced in the counterfeit passport cases.

"Organized criminals seek to exploit the openness of our borders for profit and power," Mr. Mukasey told reporters in Bangkok on June 11.

"The government of Thailand has joined the United States in taking a strong stand against these criminals, and sending a message that we will work together, across borders and regardless of borders, to stop them."

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials were especially concerned after police uncovered more than 200 real U.S. passports -- legally issued to Americans by the State Department -- hidden among boxes of fake U.S. and foreign passports.

When Thai police displayed stacks of seized passports to journalists after a raid on April 27, several U.S. and British passports bore photographs, names, birthdays, and birthplaces of people who apparently legally owned the passports.

For example, U.S. passport number 074242761, identified its owner as a bespectacled, smiling woman named Joan, born on August 17, 1934, in Indiana.

Her surname was hidden by a rubber band which police wrapped around the stack, but her identification page revealed her passport was issued in Seattle on July 15, 1996, and expired on July 14, 2006.

Atop another stack, an American passport's photo portrayed a bearded man named Charles, born April 9, 1943 in North Carolina, wearing a dark suit jacket and light tie, though his passport expired on August 23, 2005.

Another U.S. passport, issued in San Francisco with a July 16, 2005 expiration date, appeared to belong to Andrew, born in California on December 30, 1976.

They may have lost their U.S. passports, or had them stolen, police said.

Others may have illegally sold their genuine passports for quick cash.

Even though those passports had expired, forgers could alter the dates and photographs, enabling criminals to use otherwise genuine documents for travel to countries where immigration officials might not notice the changes.

Such destinations include countries where American or European passport holders do not need to apply for visas in advance, and are allowed entry upon arrival.

A illegal user would memorize the real person's biographical details, and invent a trip to match any entry and exit dates already stamped inside the passport, while hoping the owner has not yet reported it missing.

Other seized passports were from Canada, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Peru, Malta, Britain and other European countries.

In a separate case, police arrested 12 gang members from Thailand, Burma and Indonesia on May 11 in Bangkok, and seized hundreds of additional counterfeit U.S., European and Asian passports.

American and Thai officials insisted no raids have ever uncovered newer U.S. passports with high-tech electronic components, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, antennas or readers.

"Preliminary findings by [U.S.] Embassy officers, and Thai authorities, have not identified American e-passports, or any parts of American e-passports, among the items confiscated by Thai authorities," a U.S. State Department official in Bangkok said on April 30, responding to e-mailed questions about RFID tags.

"Officials also found no evidence that the fraud ring was reproducing U.S. [RFID] chips, or e-passports," she said.

America recently began allowing U.S. passport covers, containing electronic security chips, to be made at a factory in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, where they are fitted with a wire radio frequency identification [RFID] antenna.

The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), which is the congressional agency producing new passports, said the U.S. passport- production facility in Ayutthaya's Hi-Tech Industrial Estate is secure, and that the State Department checked the security of Thailand's plant, the Washington Times recently reported.

Congressional investigators criticized the GPO for using European- made integrated circuits, intended as a security device in the passport, and assembling the booklet covers in Thailand, because blank passports could be stolen during transit.

Smartrac, the Amsterdam-based Dutch company that makes the passport covers in Thailand, was targeted by Chinese economic espionage in the past, according to a court filing in the Netherlands, the Washington Times recently reported.

In April, a group of House Republicans introduced legislation that would require the State Department to use U.S.-made components for new electronic passports, and assemble the booklets in America, to help prevent theft or counterfeiting.

But people illegally using real or fake U.S. passports lacking RFID components could still enter and exit countries that have not upgraded to the new system, Police Lt. Col. Sophon Sarapat, of Bangkok's Special Operations Department, said in an interview.

He was part of the Thai police team which arrested a purported Bangladeshi national, Mohammed Karim, during an April 27 raid on his Bangkok home.

In that raid, police reportedly seized 577 counterfeit passports of various countries, and more than 200 real American passports, police said.

They also discovered 1,680 fake passport photo identification pages -- mostly for insertion into U.S. and European passports -- plus 680 fake visas for several countries, police said.

Police also found a computer, forged rubber visa stamps, and a laser printer.

"If you want to make a counterfeit passport, you first make a blank passport," Lt. Col. Sophon said.

"The blank passport is made by an offset printer. Then the criminal uses rubber stamps, and a computer and laser printer, to put the details in the blank passports."

Mr. Karim's home allegedly included boxes of real and fake passports, including U.S. passports.

"The American embassy proved that these are the real passports, 200 or 300 American" passports, Lt. Col. Sophon said.

"Maybe these passports are used for smuggling, and for many other things. Maybe by terrorists, I am not sure."

Mr. Karim's passports were allegedly being sold illegally at the rate of 100 or more a month, for about $100 to $300 each, police said.

Lt. Col. Sophon has worked for 15 years investigating crime in Bangkok, initially in the Crime Suppression Department, then at the immigration desk at Bangkok's international airport, before joining Special Operations police more than a year ago.

In 2005, he attended a Counterfeit Detection Seminar in Washington arranged by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Secret Service.

Though police arrested the Bangladeshi, they were not immediately able to find out who created the blank counterfeit passport pages on an offset printer.

"You can print, in one day or one week, many passports," Lt. Col. Sophon said.

"Then you stop printing, and move the offset printer," which is a portable, common machine.

The Bangladeshi "told me that he sent passports to Pakistan and Bangladesh," Lt. Col. Sophon said.

"He didn't know where the passports" ultimately ended up.

Thailand is notorious for producing fake passports and other documents, but the counterfeiters' halcyon days may soon be over.

"In 2007, Thailand adopted the Penal Code Amendment Act, number 18, regarding offences relating to passports," said Ed Kelly, an attorney and partner at Bangkok's prestigious Tilleke and Gibbins law firm.

"This Act was promulgated in response to the threat of terrorism and international criminal networks...the maximum imprisonment term for this offense is 20 years imprisonment," Mr. Kelly said.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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