Thailand has a booming black market for fake identity documents and it was here that two passengers on a missing Malaysia Airlines jet were apparently able to get hold of stolen passports.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said more than 60,000 passports -- both Thai and foreign -- are reported missing or stolen each year. Some are known to be sold on through syndicates to drug traffickers. Others are suspected to have ended up in the hands of Islamist militants.
"Fake passports and identity fraud in general is a massive problem in Thailand," police commander and Thailand's Interpol director Apichart Suriboonya told Reuters.
Sometimes documents are sold by their owners to cover travel costs, passed on to middlemen, Thai or foreign, who work with criminal networks, he added.
The passports may be altered with a new photograph, although sometimes the fraudulent user hopes to pass as the real owner.
The passenger manifest issued by Malaysia Airlines included the names of two Europeans -- Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi -- who were not on the plane. Both had passports stolen on the Thai holiday island of Phuket, although there is nothing to link them with the plane’s disappearance.
The passports were used to buy tickets from travel agents in the resort town of Pattaya, to Beijing and on to Europe. Police were questioning them Monday.
Phuket police officer Angkarn Yasanop said foreigners can earn $200 to sell their passport.
Larry Cunningham, who recently retired as Australia's honorary consul there, said that crooked jet-ski and motorbike rental operators often take passports as deposits and then made false allegations of damage. The tourist, unwilling to pay, reports the passport stolen at an embassy on consulate and gets a new one. The old passport is sold into the underworld.
"Phuket has some very, very unsavory characters and they're not all Thais," Cunningham said. "Nothing would surprise me about Phuket."