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As the revelation that two passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane were traveling on stolen passports demonstrates, it remains frighteningly easy to purchase fraudulent passports and other official identification papers overseas.
Dateline NBC showed in 2007 just how easy it can be. Producers used hidden cameras to buy passports stolen from tourists as well as fraudulent passports apparently issued by corrupt government officials.
Stolen passports were so prevalent in Lima, Peru, that brokers were hawking them on the street, within blocks of government buildings.
The passports were “from whatever country you want,” one broker said.
In a downtown marketplace, a broker pulled a handful of stolen passports out of a black plastic bag.
“I've got Canadian, from various places—England,” the broker said.
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Many of the passports were stolen from tourists and ranged in price from a few dollars for a South American passport to $100 for a British passport. Dateline producers purchased a passport from Great Britain that had been stolen from Alison Shelley while she was on vacation in Peru.
“I stood in a cafe in Lima with no passport and no money at all, and I just felt really lost and just scared, really wanted to go home,” Shelley told Dateline after being alerted that her passport had been sold on the black market.
Shelley’s passport had been entered into Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database, created in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11attacks, and might have set off alarms had someone attempted to use it to enter the United States. But that’s often not the case if they fly elsewhere, as only the U.S., Great Britain and the United Arab Emirates routinely check the database, according to Interpol.
Of greater concern to law enforcement authorities than a stolen passport is a genuine passport issued under a false identity. These passports are impossible to check against the database because they read as legitimate.
In Lima, a broker named “Jorge” promised Dateline a genuine Spanish passport supplied through what he described as criminal contacts within government agencies.
“The document I am giving you is very clean. It doesn't have even a single stamp. It was obtained here in the Spanish consulate,” Jorge said. “They sell them from the inside. I have people who get them from there.”
That document, purportedly obtained from a corrupt official inside a Spanish embassy, cost $1,750.
Jorge also produced a genuine-looking Peruvian passport, for which he charged $900. The fraudulent passport didn’t raise any suspicions from a Chilean border agent when it was used to successfully cross the Peruvian border into Chile.
An expert hired by Dateline also obtained a fraudulent Venezuelan passport in Caracas and flew to the Dominican Republic and Mexico without a problem.
Last year passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases.
Sometimes, authorities do flag them. Nabeel Hussain, 30, who was convicted in 2009 in connection with a terrorist suicide mission intended to blow up seven passenger jets with liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks, was arrested at Stansted Airport outside London in September as he tried to board a plane to Turkey using a fraudulent passport.
Hussain had served four years of an eight-year sentence before being released on parole. One condition of parole was that he could not leave the country. Detectives believe he was planning to travel to Syria to join militants in the civil war, but Hussain has denied the allegation.
The passengers using stolen passports aboard Malaysian Airlines flight were from Iran. Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, 29, and Pouria Nourmohammadi, 18, used Austrian and Italian passports that were recorded in Interpol’s database to board the China-bound MH 370 flight.
Investigators have said they do not believe the Iranians had anything to do with the jet’s disappearance, but Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble used the publicity that the use of the fake passports generated to highlight the risk posed by the black market in official documents.
“It remains of serious concern to Interpol that approximately four out of every 10 international passengers are not being screened against our SLTD database, and this should be a worry for us all.”
He said much the same thing in 2007: “People should be very troubled by how a gaping hole that existed before the September 11th terrorist attacks, before the Madrid attacks, the London attacks, that the gaping hole is still gaping. It might be smaller in this country, that country, but globally speaking it's still a gaping hole.”