Thailand under spotlight for forged passport scams

BANGKOK - The use of stolen passports by two men aboard missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 thrust Thailand into the spotlight Tuesday after police revealed that they were taken in Thai coastal resorts.

“Thailand is a hub for the production of forged passports, some of them smuggled to other countries, as the passport components such as stickers and books are said to be good-quality forgeries,” an unnamed source at Thai Immigration told Bangkok newspaper The Nation on Tuesday.

Malaysian authorities opened an investigation Sunday into a possible "terrorist act" on Flight MH370, which had departed from Kuala Lumpur and was en-route to Beijing. 227 passengers and 12 crew staff were aboard.

A check of the passenger list had revealed that two men used passports stolen in Thailand from an Austrian and an Italian tourist in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The Austrian passport was stolen on the island resort of Phuket, in southern Thailand, while the Austrian passport disappeared en-route to Bangkok.

Moreover, Thai police said Tuesday that two plane tickets used by the suspicious passengers were bought online at the same time on consecutive numbers through a travel agency in Pattaya, a resort town east of Bangkok. It increased suspicion of a "terrorist" act as airline security experts consider the likelihood two people using stolen passports travelling together “very rare.” 

On Sunday, Thai police reacted to news of the stolen passports by launching an operation to dismantle a passport trafficking ring on Phuket, determined to obtain information on the buyers.

“A police team combined with local police and immigration are working to track down this passport ring,” southern police commander Panya Mamen told the Anadolu Agency.

According to data from the Thai Immigration Bureau, on average 1,000 foreign passports are stolen per year in Thailand, a country visited by some 26.7 millions tourists in 2013 according to figures released by the Thai tourism authority. The majority of these travel documents are from France, United Kingdom, USA, China, South Korea, Japan, Austria and Canada.

Over the last 15 years, Thai and foreign police have smashed several passport trafficking rings in the Kingdom. Some were run by nationals from middle-eastern countries, some by Algerian and some by Nigerians.

More often than not, passports are stolen from tourists and then altered with the insertion of new pictures and additional pages.

“Criminals face difficulties producing fake passports due to the sophisticated anti-counterfeiting techniques, so they resort to buying real passports from gangs of thieves, which target foreign tourists in Thailand,” General Warawut Taweechaikarn, commander of the investigation division at the Immigration Bureau, told The Nation Tuesday.

Another source of forged passports comes from penniless backpackers who sell their passport for between US$1,000 -US$2,000, and then tell their embassy they were stolen. Aware of this, some European embassies have reinforced new procedures in recent years to deliver only short-term temporary travel documents.

Counterfeiting rings prosper in Thailand where many kinds of “official documents” - such as identity cards or press cards - are available in backpacker areas such as western Bangkok`s Khao San road.

They are often identical to the real McCoy and available for around 100 euros.

The Thai Immigration Bureau source said that many passports forged in Thailand were based on those stolen overseas smuggled into the country as it had become renowned as a “production base” for counterfeiters.

Forged Israeli passports were until recently considered very popular as they were seen as very easy to alter. Over 10 Iranians were arrested in Bangkok in 2006 with forged Israeli documents.

According to the Thai source, forged passports are used for illegal immigration, human trafficking, transnational crimes and terrorism.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency