Wednesday, June 25, 2008

US helps Thailand rub out fake passports

By Richard Ehrlich

BANGKOK - United States 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 US Attorney General Michael 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," 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."

Thailand has long been notorious as a hub for producing fake passports and other documents, and US officials have previously assisted in breaking criminal counterfeit rings in Thailand, which some fear had done business with al-Qaeda and other transnational terror groups. But the counterfeiters' halcyon days may soon be over in Thailand.

According to Ed Kelly, an attorney and partner at Bangkok's Tilleke and Gibbins law firm, in 2007 Thailand adopted the Penal Code Amendment Act regarding offenses related to passports. The act was promulgated in response to the threat of terrorism and international criminal networks and imposes a maximum imprisonment term of 20 years for convicted offenses, he said.

Still, US officials were concerned after police uncovered more than 200 real US passports - legally issued to Americans by the US State Department - hidden among boxes of fake US and foreign passports. When Thai police displayed stacks of seized passports to journalists after a raid on April 27, several US and British passports bore photographs, names, birthdays and birthplaces of people who apparently legally owned the passports.


For example, US 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 US 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 US 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 on arrival. An 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 in Thailand 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, Myanmar and Indonesia on May 11 in Bangkok, and seized hundreds of additional counterfeit US, European and Asian passports.

American and Thai officials insisted no raids had ever uncovered newer US passports with high-tech electronic components, such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, antennas or readers. "Preliminary findings by [US] 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 US 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 US [RFID] chips, or e-passports," she said. America recently began allowing US passport covers, containing electronic security chips, to be made at a factory in Ayutthaya, 60 kilometers north of Bangkok, where they are fitted with a wire RFID antenna.

The US Government Printing Office (GPO), which is the congressional agency producing new passports, said the US 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.

In April, a group of House Republicans introduced legislation that would require the State Department to use US-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 US passports lacking RFID components could still enter and exit countries that have not upgraded to the new system, Lieutenant Colonel Sophon Sarapat, of the Thai police's special operations department, said in an interview.

He was part of the same 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 US 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," 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."

Karim's home allegedly included boxes of real and fake passports, including US passports. "The American Embassy proved that these are the real passports, 200 or 300 American" passports, Sophon said. "Maybe these passports are used for smuggling, and for many other things. Maybe by terrorists, I am not sure."

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. 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 US Department of Homeland Security and US 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," 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", Sophon said. "He didn't know where the passports" ultimately ended up.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

(Copyright 2008 Richard S Ehrlich.)

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