How Hard Is It to Catch a Fake Passport?

By Megan Papesh | March 24, 2014 | American Scientific Journal

Imagine that you are a bouncer, checking IDs outside a popular bar in a college town. It is somewhat dark outside the door, there are many distractions: loud music is playing and your job requires you to also keep an eye on the crowd for trouble. And because the patrons are dressed for a night out, many of them look somewhat different than their ID photos.

Despite all these challenges, intuition probably tells you that matching faces to ID photos is easy and accurate. Look at the photo, look at the person, and they either match or not. It turns out, however, that this intuition is wrong. Detecting false IDs is surprisingly difficult, especially when they rarely occur. A bouncer for a college bar can likely expect to catch roughly a dozen fake IDs in an evening, and the cost for missing one is relatively low: an underage student sneaks into a bar, and the bar makes more money.

Now imagine that you are screening IDs for airport security. Again, you must simultaneously verify IDs while keeping an eye on the crowd for suspicious activity, and there is time pressure to keep the line moving. Moreover, travelers vary widely in age and appearance; their IDs and passports are from all around the world; and there can be great differences between a person’s photo and their current appearance.

Most importantly, only a very rare person would attempt to board an airplane with a false ID, and the consequences of missing that person could be dire. With the recent disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and reports that two men boarded the plane using stolen passports (although they were subsequently ruled out as potential terrorists), attention has become focused on this potential security loophole.

In many airports around the world, there are several checks in place to prevent individuals with stolen IDs from passing through security, including scanning passengers’ passports against the Interpol database of known missing/stolen documents.

Approximately 3.1 billion people traveled via airplane in 2013, yet Interpol estimates that passengers successfully boarded airplanes 1 billion times without having their passports scanned against their database.

Although this oversight may reflect negligence or lack of available technology, it underscores the need to understand the second line of defense against stolen identity documents: the human ability to match faces to photographs. Given the myriad contexts in which society relies on face matching, it is surprising to learn that decades of research have documented its remarkable fallibility.

People often have the intuitive impression that they (and others) are “expert” face processors, given the social relevance and ubiquity of face and expression perception. In many domains, this intuition is correct. Humans are capable of recognizing hundreds of individuals across years, and under varying environmental conditions.

However, this impressive ability is generally limited to familiar faces.

In 2011, researchers asked U.K. and Dutch participants to sort 40 photographs of individuals into piles so that each pile contained pictures of the same person. The 40 photographs depicted only two individuals, both Dutch celebrities, and, in fact, almost all of the Dutch participants created only two piles.

By contrast, the U.K. participants created an average of 7.5 separate piles. Without familiarity to aide their processing, the U.K. participants perceived the faces as representing far more unique identities.

Other research has focused on unfamiliar face matching. Although there are certainly situations in which an observer must match a familiar face to his photo ID–for instance, a frequent flyer or familiar face at a neighborhood bar or liquor store–the majority of people passing through security lines or other age and identity checkpoints are likely to be unfamiliar to the person checking their documents. Under these circumstances, a premium is placed on catching the “fakes.”

Although it is not ideal to inconvenience someone by closely scrutinizing their ID, the consequences of missing a stolen ID are severe. Unfortunately, laboratory research has revealed that this task is remarkably error-prone. Under idealized conditions, with just two faces to compare, almost 20 percent of identity mismatches go undetected, according to research published in 2008. Performance drops even further when the observer compares faces of other-race individuals, extending the well-known own-race bias in face recognition to perceptual tasks that place little burden on memory systems.

But how well do such laboratory studies mimic real life?

To approximate real-life conditions, researchers sent shoppers through a supermarket carrying credit cards with identifying photos on the front. When the shoppers attempted to pay with their assigned cards, they were unaware of whether the credit card photo depicted them, or a different individual, matched for age and gender.

Although all cashiers were aware of the ongoing study, and were warned to watch out, they accepted nearly 50 percent of the fraudulent cards.

Error rates exceeding 20 percent are harmless in the lab, but they can have severe consequences in applied settings. One difficulty in comparing lab studies with applied contexts is the rate at which observers encounter fake IDs. In most laboratory studies, observers encounter 50 percent identity matches and 50 percent identity mismatches.

While it is possible for a liquor retailer to encounter frequent fake IDs (particularly in small college towns with not much else to do!), one can likely assume that very few individuals present fake or stolen IDs when traveling through the airport or crossing national borders.

Although this sounds like a good thing, there is solid evidence to suspect that these contextual statistics will have a powerful (and detrimental) influence on an individual’s ability to detect identity mismatches.

In visual search tasks such as baggage screening in which targets occur rarely, people become less likely to notice them. This is known as the low-prevalence effect, and it often manifests as a conservative bias in decision-making. That is, individuals become less “willing” to report a target when those targets appear infrequently. The same finding – but far stronger – emerges in unfamiliar face matching.

In a study published earlier this year, I along with Stephen Goldinger at Arizona State University found that when people rarely encountered false IDs–in our study, they were looking at two pictures depicting the same or different individuals–they missed 45 percent of those that occurred. That is, in those instances, they thought the two photos were of the same person when they were not.

This error resisted many attempts to reduce it: we asked observers to make certainty judgments and even gave them a second chance to view some face pairs. Thus, face matching is strongly affected by viewers’ expectations. If someone does not expect to encounter a fake ID, that person will be less likely to detect fake IDs. The consequences of these biases, coupled with the inherently challenging nature of unfamiliar face matching, suggest that photo-ID matching is far more challenging (and unsuccessful) than we might care to believe.


 Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, P. O., & Wittlinger, R. P. (1975). Fifty years of memory for names and faces: A cross-sectional approach. Journal of Experiment Psychology: General, 104, 54-75.

 Hancock, P. J. B., Bruce, V., & Burton, A. M. (2000). Recognition of unfamiliar faces. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 330-337.

 Jenkins, R., White, D., Van Montfort, X., & Burton, A. M. (2011). Variability in photos of the same face. Cognition, 121, 313-323.

 Kemp, R., Towell, N. & Pike, G. (1997). When seeing should not be believing: Photographs, credit cards, and fraud. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11, 211-222. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-0720(199706)11:3<211::AID-ACP430>3.0.CO;2-O

 Megreya, A. M. & Burton, A. M. (2006). Unfamiliar faces aren’t faces: Evidence from a matching task. Memory & Cognition, 34, 865-876.

 Megreya, A. M. & Burton, A. M. (2007). Hits and false positives in face matching: A familiarity based dissociation. Perception & Psychophysics, 69, 1175-1184.

 Megreya, A. M. & Burton, A. M. (2008). Matching faces to photographs: Poor performance in eyewitness memory (without the memory). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14, 364-372.

 Papesh, M. H., & Goldinger, S. D. (2014). Infrequent identity mismatches are frequently undetected. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. doi: 10.3758/s13414-014-0630-6

 Wolfe, J.M., Horowitz, T.S., & Kenner, N.M. (2005). Rare items are often missed in visual searches. Nature, 435, 439-440.

Fake Passports Fall In The Spotlight After Malaysia Airlines Disappearance

By Charlotte Alfred       03/11/2014

The revelation that two passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 were traveling under stolen passports brought with it questions about who the men were and why their stolen passports were not flagged. Authorities have been investigating why two Iranian passengers on the vanished Boeing 777 were able to board the plane using an Austrian passport stolen in 2012 and an Italian passport stolen in 2013 from the Thai holiday island of Phuket. Interpol has stated the men have not been linked to the jet’s disappearance, and has said it is unlikely they had terrorist ties.

The Malaysia Airlines case has increased scrutiny on security flaws in international travel. The MH370 passengers bypassed a security check that could have uncovered fraud because European passport-holders with a flight connection to Europe in less than 72 hours are not required to apply for Chinese visas, according to The Independent. And while the stolen documents were registered in Interpol’s database,authorities  failed to check those records.

Such exploitable flaws may arise more frequently than commonly assumed. Interpol warns that four out of every 10 international passengers are not screened using its voluminous database of missing travel IDs. In one striking case, the investigation into a 2010 Indian plane crash that killed 158 people discovered 10 passengers were traveling on stolen or forged documents, according to The Financial Times.

While terrorism is the primary concern with illegal passports, the newspaper notes most of the demand comes from illegal immigration. Malaysian police chief Tan Sri Khalid said Tuesday that one of the Iranian passengers traveling on a stolen passport, 19-year-old Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, was planning to seek asylum in Germany.

Stolen documents are just one aspect of the illegal passport trade. There are several other routes to obtaining fake identity papers:

1) Doctor a lost, stolen or other black market passport
Whether stolen or misplaced, a stunning amount of documents are separated from their owners. Interpol’s database of lost and stolen travel documents contains 40 million records from 167 countries. Interpol’s director in Thailand told Reuters that desperate travelers have also been known to sell off documents to cover travel costs; police say such sales fetch just $200.

Chen Manxiong, 45, was a manager at Zhongshan Industrial Development Co Ltd. His wife Chen Qiuyuan, 43, was the company's lawyer,together the Chens embezzled more than 400 million yuan (US$49 million)from a bank.The Chens fled to Thailand in June 1995 before the embezzlement was exposed.

In Thailand, the couple changed their names, bought illegal Black market Thai passports, and settled in Chiang Mai where they purchased several properties,Chen Manxiong even had plastic surgery to change his appearance.The couple were detained crossing the boarder by Thai immigration police on allegations of illegal immigration and using fake passports in  May of 2000.

Thai authorities sentenced the pair to jail terms of more than 10 years each, before they were extradited to China in December 2002,upon  returning to China they were found guilty, Chen Manxiong received life while his wife, Chen Qiuyuan, was given a 14-year sentence by Guangdong Higher People's Court.

According to the extradition agreement between China and Thailand, the Chens were returned to Thailand to continue their original sentences for illegal immigration and using fake passports,before being returned to China to serve their sentences for embezzlement.

These documents can then end up in the hands of criminal networks that either try to use them themselves, or replace the information and photo in the ID. In some parts of the world, these are easy and cheap to procure. A reporter for Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper found agencies in China offering a two-day service for around $830 (£500 ) for a lost or stolen passport forged with new details.

The holy grail, of course, is a blank passport, stolen in diplomatic transit by seasoned criminals. The New York Times explains:

"Of all forms of passport fraud, this is one of the most frightening. Only the very best counterfeits make it past airport security. But authentic blank passports, when filled out correctly, are extremely difficult to detect. Virtually the only way to trip up a person traveling on an authentic passport is if he makes an error filling it out or if the passport number turns up in a database of stolen documents."

2) Forge a passport
Officials have been warning for years that trade in counterfeit documents is becoming increasingly sophisticated. The Malaysia Airlines investigation has put Thailand’s passport production industry in the spotlight. The country has emerged as the global hub of the false documents black market, partly because of expertise in forgery and good travel links, according to The Telegraph.

While it is more complicated to pass off fake passports as the real deal than doctoring real ones, manufacturing counterfeit passports is still big business. In 2009, British police found 1,800 alleged counterfeit passports stuffed in two wardrobes in a London apartment, valued at $1.6 million. Three years later, Thai police cracked a major passport counterfeiting ring which was accused of manufacturing 3,000 falsified passports and visas in five years, according to The Guardian.

3) Buy an official passport with a false identity
In some countries, it is possible to bribe the right people for an authentic passport with a false identity. According to South African newspaper The Sunday Independent, British citizen and terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite — known as the White Widow — paid $1,800 for fake South African documents from corrupt officials in 2005. A separate NBC News investigation in 2007 found Peruvian officials willing to take payments for custom-made documents, boasting of a 25-year career in counterfeit documents.

4) Forge documents and apply for an official passport
Another method is to apply for an official passport using fake documents. Birth certificates are relatively easy to fake in the U.S., as they don’t require a photo or fingerprints and can be provided by multiple authorities, such as churches and hospitals, David Simcox, board chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies, told PBS FRONTLINE in 2001.

Although procedures have tightened since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, U.S. government investigators testing the system in 2009 were able to to obtain passports using the identities of a dead man and five-year-old boy, the Associated Press reported.

Seized passports and stamps used in the immigration scam by New Can Consulting displayed by Canada Border Services Agency. (CBSA)

Seized passports and stamps used in the immigration scam by New Can Consulting displayed by Canada Border Services Agency. (CBSA)


Fake job, fake education, fake residency: 15 clients of fraudulent immigration scheme deported

2 women who lied about residency among latest to lose appeals and have 30 days to go back to China

By Eric Rankin, CBC News Posted: Dec 08, 2016

Fifteen former clients of an imprisoned B.C. immigration consultant have now been deported to China. And the failed appeals by two women who fought to remain in Canada provide a rare glimpse into the illegal tactics used to carry out what has been labelled as the biggest immigration scam in B.C. history.

Immigration Appeal Division transcripts obtained by CBC News detail lies and deceptions, including one immigrant pretending to attend university in B.C. while actually obtaining an education outside the country.Another fraudulently claimed to work for a fictitious B.C.-based company while in fact living in China.

The two unrelated women have been stripped of their permanent residency status for lying about their eligibility and will be unable to return to Canada for five years — unless they receive permission from immigration officials to come back sooner. They were clients of Xun "Sunny" Wang and his now defunct companies New Can Consultants and Wellong International Investments.  

Wang is serving seven years in prison for immigration fraud. The Canada Border Services Agency had previously reported Wang had 1,200 clients. It now says that number has "increased to over 1,600 as a result of further investigation." In updated figures supplied to the CBC, the CBSA alleges 318 of Wang's former customers obtained permanent residency under false pretenses.

And more than 200 others may have lied in order to become Canadian citizens.The CBSA says another 547 ex-clients remain under investigation, while 226 have "lost status through other processes", including voluntarily giving up their permanent residency or Canadian citizenship.

That brings the total number of people deported or facing possible deportation to more than 1,300.So far, 44 removal orders have been issued, but some have pending appeals.Fifteen have been forced to return to China.

Convicted immigration fraudster Xun 'Sunny' Wang used his own home in Richmond as a fake address for several fictitious companies. (Mike Zimmer/CBC )

Convicted immigration fraudster Xun 'Sunny' Wang used his own home in Richmond as a fake address for several fictitious companies. (Mike Zimmer/CBC )

Case No. 1: Fake job, fake residency

The case of Min Zhang, 53, shows one way the con operated.In a decision handed down by the Immigration Appeal Division in Vancouver last month, adjudicator Craig Costantino deconstructed Zhang's claims.Zhang gained permanent residency in Canada under the investor class designation in December 2007.Her husband and her daughter immigrated with her and settled in Burnaby. Zhang, however, left Canada just six days later and spent almost two years back in China before returning to Canada in 2009, only to leave again, allegedly to care for an ailing grandmother.Permanent residents are required to spend at least two years out of five living in Canada.

In turn, they're entitled to most Canadian social benefits, Zhang grew concerned that living in China would breach her Canadian residency obligation, so she went to Wang's office."She then participated in a fraud scheme," Costantino wrote in his decision."The consultant filled out her permanent residency card renewal forms in 2012 indicating she had been employed in Canada from January 2010 to 2012."

In his decision, Costantino described a shell game in which Zhang paid a fee to Wang, the immigration consultant, in return for what appeared to be a salary from a bogus employer. Wang's trial last year heard he routinely created letters of employment for his clients, using the names of companies he created as part of the con. Costantino notes the deception even extended to filing income tax returns in Canada with the assistance of the consultant, based on pay for work "she never performed throughout a period where she admitted that she was for the most part not in Canada.

"All of this was designed to create the appearance his clients were meeting ongoing residency requirements in Canada, although most were spending the majority of their time in China.False passport stamps As part of the scam, the consultant also altered or falsified entry and exit stamps in her passport "to falsely credit [her] with over 600 days of residency" in Canada. Costantino notes Zhang "admitted to making a serious mistake", but she appealed on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, claiming "she was now playing a critical role in raising her three young grandchildren," having moved from Burnaby to Waterloo, Ont.

But Costantino rejected her appeal, finding "the current situation in which the entire extended family is living under one roof is a recent development."For almost five years after she was landed as a permanent resident, [she] chose to live apart from her husband and daughter in China. "In stripping Zhang of her permanent residency status and ordering her deported, Costantino ruled "[Zhang] did not commit a single innocent mistake. Rather she participated in an elaborate fraud conspiracy along with her consultant that was ongoing for three years …. The appeal is dismissed.

Page of a passport showing that entry and exit stamps that were falsified to meet residency requirements to maintain permanent residence in Canada. (CBSA)

Page of a passport showing that entry and exit stamps that were falsified to meet residency requirements to maintain permanent residence in Canada. (CBSA)

Case No. 2: Fake university history.

While Zhang pretended to work at a fictitious job in order to fake her presence in Canada, a younger permanent resident pretended to attend a Canadian university, when in fact, she was getting her schooling overseas. Xiaojia Zheng, 28, also attempted to appeal her removal order on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.Immigration department documents obtained by the CBC show Zheng came to Canada at the age of 18 in 2006.

Five years later she applied for a permanent residency card "with a falsified history of study which made it appear as though she resided in Canada when she did not."  Zheng claimed she first attended Langara College in Vancouver, then later the University of Calgary, from 2006 to 2010, when in fact she had been attending the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom followed by King's College of London during much of the same time period.

In short, she pretended she was studying and residing in Canada when in reality she was living in England. Testimony 'not credible' Zheng's new immigration adviser, Sophia Huang-Cummings, blamed the misrepresentation on "Sunny" Wang and his company Wellong International, hired by Zheng's father."I know she made a mistake," Huang-Cummings told Zheng's IRB hearing.

"I know her father made a mistake to hire the wrong person…she actually was complete[ly] trust[ing] her father. Who will not trust the father?" But in reviewing Zheng's appeal last month, Immigration Appeal Division adjudicator Larry Campbell found while "[Zheng] stated that even though she has taken several years of post-secondary education in English — up to the master's level — she did not read the forms that she signed." Campbell concluded "[her] testimony was not credible.""I find that whether directly or through willful blindness, [she] committed the misrepresentation and was not an innocent victim of her parents and the consultant."

Canadian baby Complicating matters, Zheng did return to Canada long enough to give birth to a child. Zheng's daughter is now almost one year old, and since she was born here, is a Canadian citizen. But Larry Campbell ruled there's no reason the child couldn't leave Canada with Zheng, noting Zheng's husband lives in China. "It is generally in the best interests of the child to be with both parents" he writes in his decision. "…the child is very young and would be able to adapt to living in China with her,Huang-Cummings says Zheng left Canada for China shortly after losing her appeal. The rejection of Zheng and Zhang's appeals do not bode well for other former clients of "Sunny" Wang, who have also filed appeals of their removal orders. Their cases will be heard over the next several months.

Fake Report About New Chinese Passport Goes Viral in China


February 22, 2017

&nbsp;A new "frequent traveler passport" next to the ordinary Chinese passport.

 A new "frequent traveler passport" next to the ordinary Chinese passport.

A fake news story about the introduction of a new Chinese passport went viral on Chinese social media. The debunked story claimed that the Chinese government is about to issue a new travel document, a “frequent traveler passport,” which would allow holders of the new passport to visit 141 countries on a visa-free basis. In comparison, the ordinary Chinese passport allows visa-free access to some 50 countries, putting far down in the list of the world’s best passports. While the story quickly got debunked by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the fact that the story went viral so fast underlines Chinese consumers’ willingness to travel abroad.

China, which implements strict controls on internet access and the type of stories which can be published on social media, is usually quick in stopping fake news stories and other potentially dangerous information before it goes viral. Ren Xianling, vice minister of China’s top internet authority, has described the process as “installing brakes on a car before driving off the road.”

In this case, however, the car in the metaphor did drive off the road—the story about the new frequent traveler passport was shared by over 100,000 users on Chinese social media before the story got pulled. Perhaps due to the story’s massive reach, this particular fake news story even prompted an official comment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—which officially rebutted the story at a news briefing in Beijing. The ministry also addressed the story on its official social media accounts, calling the story and the attached photo of the passport “sheer fabrication.”

It’s not difficult to understand why the story went viral: Chinese consumers’ appetite for travel made it the largest tourism source market back in 2012, yet the Chinese passport ranks among the worst in the world. Even though the number of countries that allow Chinese nationals visa-free entry has grown since the country became a force to be reckoned with in tourism, it still ranks 69 out of 99 on the Passport Index—putting it far behind its East Asian neighbors as well as its Special Administrative Regions. Visa-free entry to 141 countries, which the fake news report claimed, would put the new Chinese passport in 16th place, just ahead of the Hong Kong passport, which ranks 17.

According to the report, the new frequent traveler passport would allow visa-free entry to some of China’s most popular overseas tourist destinations, with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, as well as the whole Schengen area among the countries and regions where visa-free access would be possible. In other words, the passport would be a dream come true for China’s growing number of international travelers.

With the exception of the few countries that have implemented 10-year visas for Chinese travelers, China’s frequent travelers still have to jump through the same hoops as first-time travelers every time they travel abroad, making international travel a comparably more complicated and time-consuming affair than for travelers of other nationalities. Even though a growing number of countries accepting visa-free or visa-on-arrival access for Chinese travelers, most of these are countries which receive very few Chinese travelers. Among Chinese travelers’ top destinations in 2016, only Malaysia and Thailand offer more favorable visa policies—neither of which is visa-free.

One factor that may have made the story more believable is the fact that China already offers four different types of passports, and have historically offered different levels of visa-free access. However, for people who aren’t public servants or family members of public servants, the ordinary passport has always been the only option for Chinese travelers.

While the Chinese government has made efforts to blacklist “uncivilized” touristsfrom travel altogether, there are no signs that indicate that anything about the fake news story holds true. Sure, “rewarding” what the Chinese government considers “good” frequent travelers with a highly competitive passport may make sense at face value, but efforts to implement such a scheme with 141 countries would certainly not go unnoticed. Instead, what makes sense for both China’s growing number of travelers as well as its government is to continue efforts to have more countries allow visa-free access for Chinese travelers.

Even though the news of the frequent traveler passport wasn’t true, it would be a dream come true for many popular tourist destinations around the world. Limiting visa-free access to China’s frequent (and high-spending) travelers would avoid an explosion in low-revenue tour groups that otherwise would be likely to follow relaxed visa restrictions. Until then, long-term multiple entry visas such as the United States and Australia’s 10-year visa policies remain the best option to attract repeat high-revenue Chinese travelers.

Fake passports

A fake passport is a passport (or another travel document) issued by governing bodies and then copied and/or modified by persons not authorized to create such documents or engage in such modifications, also known as cobblers, for the purpose of deceiving those who would view the documents about the identity or status of the bearer. The term also encompasses the activity of acquiring passports from governing bodies by falsifying the required supporting documentation in order to create the desired identity.

Such falsified passports can be used for escape into exile, identity theft, age fabrication, illegal immigration, and organized crime.

In comparison, a camouflage passport is an item that was never originally 'real' and then modified, instead it is manufactured to be fake initially. Finally, fantasy passports are simply novelty items that are meant to be souvenirs and are not intended to trick customs officials.

The Red Cross identity document Adolf Eichmann used to enter Argentina under the fake name Ricardo Klement in 1950, issued by the Italian delegation of the Red Cross of Geneva

The Red Cross identity document Adolf Eichmann used to enter Argentina under the fake name Ricardo Klement in 1950, issued by the Italian delegation of the Red Cross of Geneva


The "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs entered Australia in 1965 with a fake passport, following his escape from prison. His wife and children also used fake passports to join him the following year. 

In June 2005, American actor Wesley Snipes was detained in South Africa at Johannesburg International Airport for allegedly trying to pass through the airport with a fake South African passport. Snipes was allowed to return home because he had a valid U.S. passport.

In May 2001, Kim Jong-nam, the son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, was arrested at Narita International Airport, in Tokyo, Japan, travelling on a forged Dominican Republic passport. He was detained by immigration officials and later deported to the People's Republic of China. The incident caused Kim Jong-il to cancel a planned visit to China due to the embarrassment caused by the incident.

Alexander Solonik (Russian hitman in the early 1990s) lived in Greece with a fake passport, which he had obtained from the Greek consulate in Moscow.

Adolf Eichmann (high-ranking Nazi often referred to as "the architect of the Holocaust") after the end of World War II traveled to Argentina using a fraudulently obtained laissez-passer issued by the International Red Cross and lived there under a false identity.

In October 2000, Alexander Litvinenko (Russian dissident and writer) fled to Turkey from Ukraine on a forged passport using the alias Chris Reid, as his actual passport was confiscated by Russian authorities after criminal charges were filed against him.

RCMP bust passport fraud scheme tied to Canada's 'most wanted' using Facial Recognition

Police say passports with fake names issued to cocaine traffickers, high profile murder suspect

The RCMP have arrested a man accused of duping Passport Canada into issuing passports under fake names to some of Canada’s most notorious criminal suspects, CBC has learned.  

The RCMP alleges the passport fixer was aiding high-level cocaine traffickers including the infamous Alkhalil brothers, one of whom is wanted for two deadly shootings in Toronto and Vancouver. “He was facilitating the obtaining of Canadian passports in exchange for money,” said RCMP National Division Insp. Costa Dimopoulos, who told CBC News that criminals are willing to spend $5,000 to $20,000 for a genuine document issued under an assumed name.

Police charged Harbi Mohamoud (Dave) abad last Friday with a string of passport and identity fraud offences after the RCMP’s Sensitive and International Investigations Section (SIIS) searched his Gatineau, Que., apartment looking for hard drives, photos and other evidence. “Canadian passports are coveted by people in the criminal underworld,” Dimopoulos said. “It’s allowing you to move freely internationally without fear of being captured. It allows you the ability to hide, essentially, from police.”

To date the RCMP have linked Gabad to 13 fraudulent passport applications, including eight that were actually issued by Passport Canada under assumed identities, according to search warrant documents filed in court.

Criminal suspects tied to passport probe

Police say the passports were winding up in the hands of a crime group tied to the remaining members of the Alkhalil family (two of the five Alkhalil brothers were gunned down in gang-related violence in B.C. in the early 2000s).

“The Alkhalil brothers are a family that moved here a number of years ago from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia,” Ottawa police Acting Insp. Mike Laviolette told CBC News. “They are well-known in the law enforcement community for criminality mainly dealing in cocaine and the violence associated to this family and their associates.”

RCMP allegations filed in court documents detail the high-level suspects tied to the passports: 

  • Robby Alkhalil, 27, was caught in Greece with a genuine Canadian passport under an assumed identity according to police. He awaits extradition to Canada accused of drug offences and the fatal shooting of Johnny Raposo at the Sicilian Cafe in Toronto’s Little Italy in June 2012 and the point-blank execution of rival gang leader Sandip Duhre at the downtown Vancouver Sheraton Wall Centre in January 2012.
  • Nabil Alkhalil, 38, is a convicted cocaine trafficker who served a seven-year prison sentence. The RCMP say they are looking for him on identity theft charges after he was detected arriving at the airport in Bogota, Colombia, with a fraudulently obtained genuine Canadian passport. He was escorted back to Panama City on his way to Mexico, and has since disappeared;
  • Hisham (Terry) Alkhalil, 32, was arrested in Ottawa in January and charged in an alleged multimillion-dollar cocaine trafficking ring. The RCMP say two passport photos of Hisham Alkhalil were found on a CD at Gabad's home, but they have no evidence he obtained a passport;
  • Shane Maloney was arrested in 2012 accused, with Robby Alkhalil, of being part of a pan-Canadian cocaine import and B.C. bud export ring tied to the Hells Angels. The RCMP allege a passport application intended for Maloney was detected as a fraud and never issued;
  • Kujtim (Timmy) Lika was wanted on organized crime and drug charges by the FBI and was featured on America’s Most Wanted when he was arrested in Toronto in May 2012. He had been issued a Canadian passport in the name of an assumed identity.

Facial recognition spotted duplicates

Passport Canada has spent tens of millions of dollars enhancing security of Canada’s “ePassport” to make the document difficult to counterfeit by criminals and potential terrorists. To combat fraudulent applications among the five million requests they receive each year, they have used facial recognition technology since 2009 to scan for duplicate images within a database of 34 million photos.

Police say Nabil Alkhalil, left, and Robby Alkhalil, right, have both used fraudulently obtained genuine Canadian passports. All three brothers, including Hisham, who goes by the nickname Terry, centre, have faced cocaine trafficking charges.  (

Police say Nabil Alkhalil, left, and Robby Alkhalil, right, have both used fraudulently obtained genuine Canadian passports. All three brothers, including Hisham, who goes by the nickname Terry, centre, have faced cocaine trafficking charges. (

In 2012 that technology detected two passports issued to murder suspect Robby Alkhalil — one in his own name and a second under an identity allegedly arranged by Gabad. Passport Canada's identity fraud desk alerted the RCMP.

Investigators then discovered a series of passports and applications that shared a pattern: all were mailed from applicants living in the Outaouais area of Quebec; all used Quebec birth certificates as proof of citizenship; and many shared identical guarantors and related references and emergency contacts.

It led the RCMP to Gabad, who they allege paid desperate drug addicts, the homeless and mentally ill to forfeit identity documents to be used to submit fraudulent applications on behalf of high-paying criminals.

Police are now sorting through evidence seized in their search of Gabad’s apartment earlier this month to determine whether there are any more fraudulent passports or applications in circulation, in addition to the ones already frozen or denied.

Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Nancy Caron told CBC in an email that "Passport Canada has rigorous processes in place to confirm identity and ensure that a passport is issued only to an individual entitled to one. A combination of trained passport officers and specialized technology is used to verify applicant identity through data authentication and facial recognition."

Passport Canada statistics from the past five years show the agency discovers an average of 66 genuine passports each year that were issued to fraudsters. The agency says it reports about a dozen of them to police in cases where it suspects serious criminality. The agency also has the power to revoke passports from people who aid in a fraudulent application.

Steve Hewitt, a senior lecturer of Canada-U.S. studies at the University of Birmingham in England says the debate on secure passports goes back to the 1930s.

"The RCMP in the 1960s wanted everyone to be fingerprinted, to be included on the passport, to create a national registration system to ensure a higher level of accuracy," said Hewitt, who has written extensively on the fraudulent use of Canadian passports. "The government said it wasn’t politically acceptable. Canada wasn’t a police state. 

"So you can have the most secure passport in the world, but if there is some concern about the identity of the person applying for one, it’s difficult to prevent."

The scheme

An RCMP search warrant on the home of Harbi Mohamoud Gabad, alleged fraudulent passport fixer also known as Dave, outlines the alleged scheme to provide criminals, and others willing to spend $20,000, with a clean Canadian passport in an assumed name:

The scout

The key to the scheme is to find someone willing to sell their identification to someone willing to create a passport application. For Dave that was left to a scout named Joanne, who was asked to find people of a certain age and sex and ask if they would sell their ID for money. For each set of ID that Joanne turned over, she received $200.

The ID seller

A man named Marc sold his ID for $500, giving Dave a copy of his driver’s licence, his original birth certificate which was never returned, and his health card, which was returned. When the registered package arrived from Passport Canada, he went with Dave to the post office and handed over the package, and received the rest of his money. Others received $800 for their ID, and one man received 14 rocks of crack cocaine.

The guarantor

A woman named Renee was courted by Dave, saying if she ever needed money, she should come to him. She was given $300 at first, and when she signed her first passport application, and swore to the likeness of the person in the photograph, she was given $100. On subsequent occasions she was given between $60 and $70. Another guarantor said Dave offered $50 to $200 to sign passport applications.

    RCMP hits Immigration Canada employee with 97 charges for allegedly selling passports


    The RCMP is searching around the world for 18 suspects carrying passports they allegedly obtained through a Citizenship and Immigration Canada employee now facing dozens of criminal charges.

    Aline Rozeline Zeitoune, 50, who worked in the CIC passport section, was charged with breach of trust and 96 other counts including selling identity documents, passport forgery and making false statements, the RCMP said Friday.

    “She was a Passport Canada employee and we suspect she may have been involved in this scheme for financial gain, but it’s very much an ongoing investigation and her exact motivation is still to be determined,” said Sgt. Richard Rollings.

    According to police, 22 people, at least some of them foreign nationals, were able to obtain Canadian passports under false names, birthdates and addresses as a result of the misconduct of the Toronto civil servant. Only four have been caught so far.

    They are: Luke Tyler (alias Wayne Miller), 49, a Jamaican described by police as “no longer in Canada”; Evgeni Eliash (alias Evgeni Rubin), 36, an Israeli who is in custody; Luis Cabrera (alias Luis Moyano), 54, of Uruguay, who is also “no longer in Canada”; and Srinivas Gottiparthi (alias Sushanth Goud) 38, of India, who is being detained. “These people were not from Canada and were not entitled to Canadian passports,” Sgt. Rollings said. They were charged with passport forgery.

    The investigation began in March 2013 after CIC contacted the RCMP about suspicions an employee was processing fraudulent passport applications. Ms. Zeitoune was arrested Thursday and was being held in custody. She was to appear in court in Toronto on Friday.

    She was put on leave without pay when the review began. If she is convicted, the government will take further action. “Corrective measures were taken to ensure that this type of compromise is no longer possible,” CIC spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau said.

    Police are working with partner agencies in Canada and abroad to locate the remaining suspects. It was unclear whether they were Canadians or foreign nationals. “We anticipate other arrests,” said Sgt. Rollings, the RCMP spokesman for Ontario.

    With the passports, criminals would have been able to live in Canada under fake identities and travel undetected, but the names on the documents are now likely on international watch lists, which would render them useless. There was no indication from police the case was related to terrorism.

    “Criminals will go to great lengths to obtain fake or fraudulent passports to allow them the freedom to travel throughout the world,” said Sgt. Louie Casale of the Toronto West Serious and Organized Crime Team. “It is very important to maintain the reputation of the Canadian passport and the RCMP will diligently investigate those responsible for passport fraud.”

    Facial recognition program allows RCMP to identify alleged passport fraud

    An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age.  (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

    An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age.
    (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

    A decade-old effort by Canadian officials to use facial-recognition software to analyze passport photos is credited with helping catch a man accused of providing bogus travel documents to criminals.

    Last Friday, the RCMP National Division arrested 47-year-old Harbi Mohamoud abad of Gatineau, Que.

    According to the indictment filed at the Ottawa courthouse, Mr. Gabad is facing multiple criminal counts, including making fraudulent passport applications for organized-crime suspects from Quebec and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

    The charge sheet linked Mr. Gabad to bogus travel documents used by Rabih Alkhalil.

    Mr. Alkhalil, who was arrested in Greece in January 2013, is wanted in Canada in connection with two high-profile 2012 homicides: the fatal shooting at an ice cream parlour in Toronto’s Little Italy of John Raposo and the slaying of Sandip Duhre at a restaurant in Vancouver’s Sheraton Wall Centre.

    Mr. Gabad is also alleged to have helped one of Mr. Alkhalil’s brother, Nabil, who has a record for cocaine trafficking and assault with weapons.

    Another crime figure Mr. Gabad is accused of helping procure a passport is Shane Maloney, who was arrested in 2012 on allegations that he was part of a syndicate that united Quebec and B.C. criminals to import large amounts of cocaine to Quebec and Ontario.

    According to a search warrant application for Mr. Gabad’s residence obtained by the CBC, the investigation involved facial recognition technology that detected in 2012 that there were two passports issued to Mr. Alkhalil, one in his name and another under a bogus identity.

    Facial recognition is part of the security measures initiated by the passport office following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    “A combination of trained passport officers and specialized technology is used to verify applicant identity through data authentication and facial recognition,” Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Sonia Lesage said in an e-mail reply to the Globe.

    She said Passport Canada has been using the technology to detect fraud since 2009

    However, the project has been in development for at least a decade.

    The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) says that it has been asked to review the impact of Passport Canada’s use of facial recognition since 2004.

    By 2006, Passport Canada was looking for a computer contractor to device a facial recognition system that could handle millions of photos, according to a tender posted on the MERX website.

    Initially, the system would deal with one million scanned passport photos in its database, with about four million images being added annually during the next five years, the tender specified.

    The software would have to be available 24 hours a day for about 100 primary users within Passport Canada’s Security, Policy and Entitlement Division.

    Photos would be analyzed for two types of verifications – “1:1” checks, where an applicant’s photo is compared with an image already in the database, to make sure the applicant is really the person she or he claims to be; and “1:N” checks, where a photo would be compared with all the other pictures in the database to detect whether the applicant is already registered under another name.

    Typically, a facial-recognition software measures and compares features such as the distance between the eyes, the width of the nose or the length of the jawline.

    Such analysis is assisted by the new guidelines of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which specify that machine-readable travel documents have to use photos with neutral facial expressions.

    According to an OPC review in 2006, Passport Canada test runs showed that the software made a correct match in 88 per cent of the time if presented with good-quality photos that complied with the no-smile rule. If lower quality shots were used, the results dropped to 75 per cent.

    “When an anomaly is detected, the final determination of whether the photo merits further investigation is made by a specially trained operator after further examination,” Ms. Lesage said.

    As facial recognition technology is further developed, opportunities to incorporate it into federal surveillance programs could increase, the OPC said in a report last year.

    “For example facial recognition technology could be added to existing video surveillance systems, such as those used by the RCMP on Parliament Hill, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority in airports, and by the Canadian Border Services Agency at all border crossings.”

    How to Fake a Passport

    Alain Boucar flips open a passport and holds it under an ultraviolet light. A background image of Belgium's royal palace, faintly printed on the page, vanishes. ''See that?'' he says. He holds another Belgian passport under the spooky purple light. The image on this one is printed in a special reactive ink. It glows brightly. ''The first one's a complete counterfeit,'' he announces.

    Boucar is the director of the antifraud unit for the Belgian federal police. A genial 44-year-old, he works in a small, plain office in Brussels that is strewn with dozens of passports. It's only 10 a.m., but it has already been a busy day -- there has been an urgent call from an Interpol agent in Berlin, and another from a security officer on a Dutch cruise ship. Each wanted information from Boucar about suspicious Belgian passports. Every few minutes, a uniformed cop wanders through with a question about a suspect document. ''No good,'' he says with disgust upon being handed an Italian ID card. Lousy fakes annoy Boucar; they are not worthy of his connoisseur's eye.

    Boucar's colleague Thierry Descamps steps into his office. He is holding a fax. Descamps nods to the phone and mentions the name of a Belgian police officer on the antiterrorism task force.

    Boucar grabs the phone and his face becomes suddenly serious -- the inner cop emerges. While Boucar listens on the phone, he turns to his computer and calls up a database nicknamed Braingate, which is the Belgian police's repository of 1.4 million stolen and fraudulent documents from all over the world. The antiterrorism cop is calling about two Sri Lankans, Nicolas Sebastianpillai and Varunalingam Arudthevan, who were arrested in Faro, Portugal, on Sept. 12, en route to New York. They were traveling on Belgian passports -- stolen ones, that is. (Portuguese security detected a fake stamp on their passports and contacted the Belgian police, who found the passport numbers in Braingate.) Interpol investigators soon began aggressively pursuing suspected links between the men and the Tamil Tigers, the violent Sri Lankan terrorist group. Now the antiterrorism cop wants to know how they got their hands on these Belgian passports.

    Boucar punches in the numbers of the passports confiscated by the police in Portugal: EC 503103 and EC 503104. Boucar learns that these two passports were stolen in March, in transit from Belgium to Madagascar: a batch of 25 blank passports was lifted out of a supposedly secure diplomatic pouch. Of all forms of passport fraud, this is one of the most frightening. Only the very best counterfeits make it past airport security. But authentic blank passports, when filled out correctly, are extremely difficult to detect. Virtually the only way to trip up a person traveling on an authentic passport is if he makes an error filling it out or if the passport number turns up in a database of stolen documents. That's why Braingate is so invaluable; without it, the Sri Lankans might well have made it all the way to New York.

    Boucar searches Braingate for more information. He tells the cop on the other end of the line that he can find no evidence that the other 23 passports stolen in the same batch have been used by terrorists -- or anyone else, for that matter. Of course, that doesn't mean they haven't been, Boucar tells me. It just means nobody has been caught yet trying to use them. In fact, they have almost surely been sold on the black market, providing two dozen fresh opportunities for terrorists to sneak across international borders.

    These 23 passports, Boucar admits, are hardly the only Belgian passports circulating on the black market. In fact, his country has quietly become the global capital of identity fraud. According to the Belgian police, 19,050 blank Belgian passports have been stolen since 1990. This is probably some kind of record, although other problem countries, like Italy, Argentina and South Africa, refuse to confirm numbers.

    All these Belgian passports were not stolen in a few grand heists. Rather, small stashes were grabbed from various town halls, embassies, consulates and honorary consulates. Sold on the black market for as much as $7,500, they have subsequently been used by human traffickers, sex traffickers, gun runners and drug dealers, not to mention terrorists.

    Indeed, for terrorists making excursions outside the Middle East, Belgian passports are often the document of choice. Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, trafficked in a number of false passports, at least one of which was linked to a theft from a town hall in Belgium. And the two members of a Qaeda cell who assassinated the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud just before Sept. 11 traveled from Brussels to London to Karachi on stolen Belgian passports.

    Until this fall, Belgium's passport troubles were little noticed. The Massoud murder, however, exposed the country's problem to the world. It was a huge embarrassment for a small, chronically insecure country that has been working hard to cast itself as one of the economic and political capitals of the New Europe. After Sept. 11, Belgian investigators immediately began tracking down clues. The passports used by the Massoud assassins, Boucar discovered, were stolen in two separate break-ins: one at the Belgian consulate in Strasbourg, France, on June 26, 1999, when 45 passports were stolen, and another a few months later, on Nov. 11, 1999, when 20 were stolen from the Belgian Embassy in The Hague.

    The Belgian police are now desperately trying to tighten up security. But even if they succeed, Boucar will be busy for years to come. Terrorists are too determined and the desire for fake passports is too great. Moreover, thousands of stolen Belgian documents remain circulating around the world. Boucar looks up from his computer and gives me a weary look. ''Since Sept. 11,'' he says, ''it has been chaos around here.''

    Belgium is, at first glance, a most unlikely spot for chaos. But its longstanding reputation as a sleepy gateway between France and Northern Europe is precisely what has made it attractive to criminals. ''Brussels is at the crossroads of Europe, and an enormous amount of human traffic passes through it,'' says Jonathan M. Winer, a former State Department official and an international-crime expert. ''As a result, Belgium is the place where all sorts of crime seems to settle: drugs, human trafficking, prostitution and identity fraud.''

    To get a feeling for this criminal nexus, all you have to do is take a walk along the gritty boulevards around the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The neighborhood's main thoroughfare, Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier, is known to locals as Kandahar Lane. Spits of glistening meat turn in the windows of restaurants, and Middle Eastern music blares from CD shops. The whole neighborhood feels wired to another world: cabins du téléphone offer cheap, untraceable communications; Internet cafes let you surf the Web anonymously for two euros an hour; travel shops advertise weekly bus-and-ferry service to Tangier.

    According to investigators, it was here at the Dar Salaam hotel that Richard Reid, the accused ''shoe bomber,'' recently spent 10 days plotting to blow up an American Airlines jet. (As if to underscore Belgium's reputation as the back office of terrorism, when Reid was arrested, a map of Brussels was found in his jacket pocket.) The Dar Salaam is more flophouse than hotel, with lots of old linoleum and chipped paint and a cafe on the ground floor that is jammed with Arab men smoking and drinking tea. A few steps away is Marrakech, an Internet cafe where Reid apparently made arrangements to pick up explosives.

    On the same block is another terrorist landmark: Le Nil, the restaurant where, on Sept. 19, Belgian police officers found chemicals that had supposedly been stored there by members of a Tunisian network linked to Al Qaeda. Investigators suspect that the chemicals -- 220 pounds of sulfur and 16 gallons of acetone -- were going to be used to build a bomb to blow up the United States Embassy in Paris.

    Just across another boulevard from the Dar Salaam is a row of shadowy bars and hotels that face the southern side of the train station. This is the end of Arab turf and, according to the Belgian police, the beginning of a neighborhood controlled by the Albanian mob. The bars and hotels here all have a forsaken look and all seem to be populated by desperate Eastern European men. Here the games are human trafficking, sex trafficking and false documents. ''If you want a passport, this is where you begin to make inquiries,'' says Herman Lefief, a Belgian investigator.

    The process is never quick, especially if you are a foreigner or unknown to the sellers. Luk Alloo, a Dutch television journalist who recently purchased a middling-quality counterfeit Belgian passport for $1,500 as part of an undercover investigation, spent three months working similar mob-controlled bars in Antwerp before he found anyone who trusted him enough to get him a passport. ''They never keep anything on the premises,'' Alloo says. ''They have connections, who have connections, who have connections. It's an elaborate operation.''

    Until recently, many of those connections eventually led to a little bar about two miles away on the Chausée de Ninove in the Anderlecht district of Brussels. Anderlecht is a gritty landscape of warehouses, falafel joints and muffler shops, but the bar itself is a cheerful enough place; there's a pool table in the center of the room, and video machines blink quietly against one wall. But according to the Belgian police, this bar was -- and may still be -- the base of operations for an Albanian mobster whom Belgian cops refer to as ''M.'' (For legal reasons, they will not allow his name to be published.) From his bar stool, M. ran what investigators say was one of the largest organized stolen-passport rings in Europe.

    M. bought and sold thousands of blanks on the black market. His prices ranged from a few hundred dollars for an easy-to-get Albanian passport to $5,000 or more for a newly stolen Belgian or French passport. Investigators have also linked M. to dozens of break-ins at embassies and consulates in Germany, the Netherlands and France.

    According to the Belgian police, M.'s network is typical of the complex link between organized crime, passport fraud and terrorism in Belgium. One afternoon in the lounge of the Belgian federal police building, an investigator named Daniel Traweels draws me a picture to help me visualize how it works. He sketches four circles across the top of the page, labeling them P for prostitution, H for human trafficking, D for drugs and T for terrorism. Below, Traweels draws four more circles, identifying them as Romanians, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans who specialize in burglary and document manipulation. In the middle, he draws another circle and connects the circles above and below to the center; he labels it M.

    ''It's a network,'' Traweels explains. ''He is the middleman. The circles on the top, the buyers, they are of every race: Chinese, Russian, Arab. We have Jewish mobsters who work with Arabs, Arabs who work with Albanians, North Africans who deal with Jews. There is no prejudice in this business.''

    But there is specialization, Traweels explains. The Africans are mostly involved in money laundering. The Moroccans are involved in car-jackings, robberies. The Eastern Europeans, especially the Albanians, are expert burglars and safecrackers. These patterns rarely vary. Arabs don't get involved in burglary, nor do terrorist cells attempt large-scale passport theft. ''They leave the dirty work to the experts,'' Traweels says.

    Belgium's troubles with stolen blank passports really began only in 1995. At the time, Europe was in the midst of a push toward the creation of a unified state -- the European Union. As part of this transformation, European leaders decided to do away with almost all border controls within Western Europe. In theory, this was meant to simplify travel and, like the introduction of the euro currency, promote the idea of Europe as a coherent economic power. In practice, the lack of borders has also benefited criminals.

    A network of Albanians, many of them fleeing the war in the Balkans, found that Belgium was an ideal place to set up shop. Many of them got involved in importing human beings, especially young girls they could force into prostitution. For that, they needed passports. Although counterfeit documents were readily available in Bangkok -- one large counterfeiting operation was run by an ex-K.G.B. agent in Thailand -- the quality was often poor. Eventually, many of these Albanian outlaws, including M., discovered that instead of counterfeiting passports, it was much easier (and more profitable) to steal blanks.

    The Belgians made it particularly easy for them. The country's long history of provincial rule -- it didn't become an independent nation until 1831 -- meant that the mayors of tiny communities enjoyed enormous power. One of their perks of office was the ability to distribute passports; for decades, blank Belgian passports were stored in the 600 or so town halls around the country. Often, security amounted to nothing more elaborate than a locked door.

    In 1996 alone, 3,600 blank passports were stolen, bit by bit. In some cases, the thieves had to drill their way into a heavy safe to get to the passports -- and if they couldn't crack it, they ripped the safe right out of the wall and carted the whole thing off. In other cases, like a break-in at a town hall in Tongeren, the thieves simply helped themselves to a safe key that had thoughtlessly been left in a desk drawer. Usually there were no witnesses; the burglars left their tools behind, but little else, making the crime difficult to solve -- especially by the local cops, who, as one Belgian federal police officer put it, ''were not terribly worried about the loss of a hundred passports -- they just ordered more.''

    Ultimately, it was pressure from the United States that finally persuaded the Belgians to crack down. Back in 1991, Belgium had been admitted to the United States visa-waiver program, which allows citizens from 29 friendly countries to enter this country without applying for a visa. But the fact that blank Belgian passports were being carted off by the truckload alarmed officials in the States. (The United States does not have a problem with passport theft; fewer than 50 blanks issued since 1990 remain unaccounted for.)

    By 1997, Belgium's troubles with stolen blanks had gotten so out of hand that United States officials threatened to kick the country out of the visa-waiver program. In 1998, Belgian officials began removing blank passports from town halls and storing them in an ultrasecure building in downtown Brussels. Passports are now distributed by courier, in a system similar to America's.

    But that didn't end Belgium's problems. Criminals like M. simply shifted their operations to Belgian consulates and embassies, which were equally insecure, and where hundreds of blanks continued to be stored. The old Belgian Embassy in The Hague, where one of the Massoud passports was stolen, was a typical case. By 18th-century standards, the charming brick town house is solid and secure. By 21st-century standards, it's a joke: there are no bars on the front windows, and the locks look as if they could be jimmied with a screwdriver. Belgium has 110 embassies and consulates worldwide, some more secure than others. It's no wonder that burglars find them so inviting. Last year, the Belgian Embassy in The Hague was finally moved to a secure building across the street from a police station.

    As for the stolen passports, they quickly vanish into the criminal underground. The 506 Belgian passports that were stolen from the consulate in Cologne in August 1999 have been found all over the world -- Madrid, Istanbul, Rotterdam, Lagos, Bangkok, Islamabad -- and have been used in a wide variety of crimes, from drug dealing to human trafficking. (Belgian authorities won't say if any ended up in the hands of terrorists.) The passports stolen in Strasbourg and The Hague were used for illegal entry into Congo, China and Morocco; another was found in a house in Rotterdam where three men suspected to have links with Al Qaeda were arrested after Sept. 11.

    In the case of M., the cops got lucky. Last January, while executing a search warrant in Brussels on an unrelated case involving a 31-year-old Romanian, they turned up a trove of passport-trafficking goods: typewriters, scanners, immigration stamps for 56 countries, various identity documents (including a Spanish ID card, sans photo, filled out in the name of Bill Clinton) and some 150 stolen blanks -- including 43 Belgian, as well as others from Sweden, Greece and Germany. Most important, however, they found documents and phone records suggesting that the Romanian was one of the main passport suppliers for M.

    Investigators staked out the bar where M. conducted business. They logged his arrivals and exits; they tapped his cellphone. They concluded that his network included 50 to 60 people in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

    But ultimately M. was too slick for them. After four months of surveillance, 140 Belgian cops moved in last April to bust his operation. They hoped to nail not only M. but also several notorious passport thieves and safecrackers. It didn't happen. Stashes of cash were found, but the police failed to uncover any major cache of forged or stolen documents. M. himself was clean; searches of his apartment and car turned up nothing more damning than a gun and a bulletproof vest.

    M. was held in custody for two months, and he bragged to investigators that he had 30 million Belgian francs hidden in an overseas account that they could never find. And they couldn't. In the end, M. was charged with nothing more serious than consorting with a known criminal organization. Given the almost imperceptible speed of the Belgian courts, he will stand trial in two or three years. Until then, M. is back on the street and, presumably, back in business.

    Alain Boucar is extraordinarily proud of Belgium's new high-tech passport. Flipping through one and pointing out its many security features, he's as giddy as a new father showing off his child: ''It's a very beautiful design, don't you think?'' he says, holding it up to the light.

    Indeed it is. Thanks largely to this new passport, which Boucar helped design and which was introduced last March, M.'s business probably isn't quite as breezy today as it was last year. By all accounts, it's one of the most secure passports in the world. On the first page there's a graphic illustrating five key security features, including a laser-cut pinhole image of the passport holder, a watermark of King Albert II and an optically variable image of Belgium (which changes from green to blue depending on the viewing angle). ''Most border-control officers have one minute or less to look at a passport and determine if it is genuine,'' Boucar says. ''With this, at least they know what they're looking for.''

    This new passport is a triumph for Belgium and a sign that it is taking its problems with passport fraud seriously. Even if characters like M. get their hands on blank versions of this passport, because of features like a digitized photo they will be much more difficult to fill in convincingly. Other countries, including the United States, are similarly upgrading their passports.

    Still, it will be years before these new passports make it into wide circulation. Until then, we're stuck with the old documents. As an example, I show Boucar my United States passport. ''How easy would it be for you to put someone else's picture in here?''

    Boucar examines it. It's a standard United States passport, issued eight years ago, with a laminated photo page. ''Five minutes.''

    He sticks his thumbnail into a corner of the laminate, showing me how you can peel it back. (You can loosen the laminate by sticking it in the freezer or a microwave oven -- it depends on the type of laminate -- or, better yet, by dissolving the adhesive with Undu, a product that is easily ordered on the Internet.) Boucar then points to the little blue emblem, called a guilloche, that overlaps the photo and the passport page and is supposed to make the photo difficult to remove. ''You might see a little line here. But if I do a good job, you would not notice.'' Of course, that person would have to be around the same age, height and weight as me, but Boucar's point is well taken: doing a passable job of doctoring a typical passport is not very hard.

    Boucar then explains the tricks criminals use to fill in stolen blanks: how they feed passports into laser printers, for example. Or how they can create a perfectly good dry stamp -- an inkless stamp that leaves an embossed image on paper and is used to authenticate the passports of many countries -- by placing an old vinyl record over a passport marked with a real seal, then heating the record with an iron; the record is then pressed onto a fresh passport. Candle wax also works. As for ink stamps, they pose no challenge at all. Years ago, forgers would cut a fresh potato in half and use it to transfer a stamp from one passport to another. Today ''you just scan the page of a passport into a computer, print it out, then take it to a copy shop,'' Boucar says. ''They'll make you a rubber stamp in two minutes.''

    Boucar is something of a heretic in law enforcement circles, in which open discussion of such techniques is frowned upon, lest forgers get any new ideas. Boucar says that's nonsense. ''The forgers already know everything,'' he says. ''It's the rest of the world that we must educate.''

    Indeed, bearers of false documents often seem to know more about their business than many border guards. They know what kinds of questions will be asked by consular officers (for example, ''Who is the prime minister of Belgium?'') and what suspicious mannerisms to avoid. And experienced border-hoppers are experts at finding the weak link in the system. If Portugal is cracking down, they'll try entering Europe through Greece; later, they'll move on to Spain. They send patsies through first to test security. They know to carry bank statements (forged ones) and other supporting documents.

    Still, even the best make stupid mistakes. They print out a blank stolen passport in the wrong typeface. Or they misspell a word. One of the biggest arrests connected with the Sept. 11 attacks came in Dubai, when a passport official noticed some sloppy forgery on the French passport of Djamel Beghal. Beghal was arrested and interrogated; information he provided led to the breakup of a large European terrorist cell, including the arrest in Brussels of Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian whom Beghal identified as the leader in a plot to bomb the United States Embassy in Paris.

    In a perfect world, every traveler at every port of entry would get similarly close scrutiny. In the real world, however, that's impossible. The sheer volume of humans crossing borders every day -- some 30 million foreigners cross the United States' each month -- suggests that even where strict border controls are in place, not every traveler is going to get a careful look. What's more, immigration officers, like airline security personnel, tend to be underpaid and underprepared for the complexity of their job. There are 16 different versions of the United States passport alone in circulation. It takes a genuine passport scholar like Boucar to be able to detect the difference between a real and a fake passport from, say, Uzbekistan, not to mention whether every entry and exit stamp is authentic.

    As border traffic grows, then, often the only thing standing between a terrorist and downtown Manhattan is a database. The State Department and the I.N.S. share a vast system that contains, among other things, basic biographical information, like date of birth, of United States passport and visa holders. It also tracks blank stolen passports reported around the world as well as information about known terrorists and other high-level criminals. Every time a person enters the United States at one of the major ports of entry, his passport number is checked by the database. (At least it's supposed to be.) The I.N.S. also has a separate database called the Lookout system, which is its own record of stolen passports and intelligence information.

    These databases are useful tools, but they're still not foolproof. ''What you have to keep in mind,'' cautions Tom Furey, consul general at the United States Embassy in London, ''is the massive information overload.''

    London is as good a place to see the strengths and weakness of this system as anywhere. The embassy there is one of the busiest in the world, issuing about 175,000 nonimmigrant visas a year to travelers from 188 different countries. It also issues 25,000 passports a year, mostly to United States citizens whose passports have been lost or stolen. I recently spent an afternoon in London watching the consular officers interview visa applicants, and I learned that the State Department's database is pretty good when it comes to basic information -- detecting, for example, whether an applicant's birth date matches his name, or determining if someone is lying about whether he has ever visited the United States before. Also, if he is traveling on a passport that was stolen, say, six months ago in a country that the United States has good relations with, he will probably be caught.

    But I also learned that there is a whole lot this database won't reveal. If a person has been convicted of a serious crime in another country, for example, it probably won't show up in the database. I watched one consular officer turn away a man who wanted to visit the United States after learning that the man had recently been convicted in England of sexually molesting his 8-year-old stepdaughter. The only reason the consular officer knew about it, however, was that the man brazenly told him about it when he was asked if he had ever been convicted of any crimes. Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, recently indicted on six counts of conspiracy, was on a terrorist-watch list in France but was nonetheless able to enter the United States without question.

    When it comes to stolen passports, the situation gets even more complex. To begin with, not every country shares information about stolen passports with us. And even when they are reported, there is a time lag between when the passports are stolen and when they are reported stolen. In the Massoud case, Belgian authorities sent out a fax on the break-in in The Hague six days after the burglary; the alert about the Strasbourg theft didn't go out until almost six weeks after the break-in. In theory, the passport numbers should have been entered into databases immediately -- most people sophisticated enough to travel on a blank stolen passport know it needs to be used quickly. However, one antifraud investigator in the State Department says he was not aware of these stolen-passport numbers until ''the middle of the summer'' -- nearly a year after the passports were stolen.

    The closer you look, the scarier it gets. One example: Alain Boucar says that his database lists the numbers of 24,851 blank stolen Italian passports. Jim Hesse, a chief intelligence officer for the I.N.S., says that the United States Lookout system lists about 6,000. Why the discrepancy? Are there 18,000 stolen blank Italian passports drifting around out there that the United States doesn't know about? Or is Boucar's database wrong? Boucar insists that his numbers are accurate; Hesse trusts his. The only people who really know for sure are the Italians. ''We do not discuss stolen passports,'' a spokesman at the Italian Embassy in Washington says.

    Given these discrepancies, it's no surprise that the United States visa-waiver program has come under fire since Sept. 11. At a Senate hearing in October, a Justice Department official testified that during a review of a random sample of 1,067 passports stolen from visa-waiver countries, the Justice Department found that almost 10 percent had been used to enter the United States successfully. More than half of the stolen passports were not listed in the I.N.S.'s Lookout database.

    Of course, that's our problem, not Belgium's. It's easy to forget that when it comes right down to it, even a country like Belgium, with which the United States has a long and amicable relationship, sees this issue through an entirely different lens. Politically, Belgium now takes passport fraud seriously because it reeks of political corruption and bumbling bureaucracy -- not exactly the image the country wants to project. But practically, the loss of a few hundred passports here and there is hardly a matter of grave concern. After all, the people who usually use these passports are not coming into Belgium to wreak havoc there.

    Their crimes, whatever they are, are usually committed elsewhere. Like terrorism. It's chilling how often it is pointed out to me in Brussels that although terrorists may be passing through Belgium -- or using Belgium as a base of operations, or assuming Belgian identities to slip into other countries -- they aren't killing people or blowing up buildings in Belgium. ''Strictly speaking,'' boasts Glenn Audenaert, the plain-spoken chief of the Belgian federal police, ''Belgium does not have a problem with terrorism. You have a problem with terrorism.''


    How can you tell if a passport or driving licence is a fake?

    Eight tips on how you can spot a forged passport, driving licence and other official documents

    Would you know how to check if you have a fake passport or other confirmation of identity? New research has shown that most people can’t tell the difference between a genuine one and a forgery.The same applies to driving licences, military identity cards, and biometric residence permits.

    The identity confirmation service, HooYu, said the public is at risk because most of us can’t identify what is genuine. A spokesman for the company said: “A sample of 1,013 people were asked to identify if a passport was a real document or a fake.

    “The results showed that 68% of the time people are unable to correctly identify a fake passport. “The research also found people over the age of 55 feel the least confident about their ability to spot a forged document with less than 5% thinking they would be able to.

    “The results are particularly worrying given that in today’s digital age more of our friendships, relationships and transactions are occurring online with people we need to trust. “Transactions such as buying a car, going on a date, renting a property, or even a small business owner needing to carry out a right-to-work check are all targets for scams and fraudulent activity.

    “Currently the lack of knowledge and access to identity verification tools means that people do not have the resources they need to protect themselves from professional fraudsters. The Home Office has issued guidance to how to spot a forged passport with many of the features also applicable to other documents such as the driving licence or right to work permits.


    1. Look at the quality of the document – it should be manufactured to a high standard. Consider the detail of the embossed design on the front, usually gold foil stamped into the cover, and feel the texture of the cover material.
    2. Look at the fluorescence (brightness) of the document using ultraviolet light if you can. Security documents like passports should have a dull reaction instead of a bright one. Shining light through paper (e.g. using light from above, a lamp, or a torch) is a useful way to view features such as watermarks.
    3. Nearly all passports contain watermarks. When light is shone through the page the genuine watermark has subtle variations in the light and dark areas unlike the counterfeit which has been printed onto the surface.
    4. Security fibres appear randomly across the paper. No repeated pattern should be seen as the process is completely random. Exact matches of security fibres are not possible in security documents. Security fibres can be visible to the naked eye, or react when exposed to UV light.
    5. The printed patterns on the pages are deliberately complex, like banknotes, to make copying difficult. The background print in a genuine passport consists of solid fine lines unlike the random dots of the counterfeit, a characteristic of readily available home printers. Print quality is often a quick indicator of a counterfeit document. Commercial printing cannot produce the same quality as security printing.
    6. Genuine intaglio printing used in passports will have a rough feel to the fingers. In contrast the counterfeit document has a simulated version using an embossing process which does not feel the same.
    7. Many documents have holographic devices which are highly detailed and display different colours and designs when rotated and tilted. The counterfeit document below has a generic hologram with the word GENUINE in it – this is never seen on the real deal.
    8. Passports are made up from sheets of paper which are then stitched together and cut to size. The pages and cover should therefore all be in perfect alignment. To forge a document it may first be taken apart and then re-assembled by hand, making it difficult for all the pages to sit flush as before.