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Missing plane throws spotlight on passport theft

PHUKET, Thailand (AP) - When a German tourist refused to surrender his passport as collateral at a car rental stand along a popular beach in the Thai resort city of Phuket, the woman behind the counter pulled out a bag full of passport books to prove he could trust her.

But the tourist, Falko Tillwich, was insistent. "I said absolutely not ... no way," he recalled, and later handed over his driver's license instead.

Tillwich's concern: losing vital travel documents, or worse - having them stolen by criminal syndicates that are exploiting lax law enforcement and corrupt police here to support a global network of human smugglers, fugitives and sometimes, terrorists.

Those worries were heightened this week after investigations into Malaysian jetliner that went missing March 8 with 239 people aboard revealed two Iranian citizens had boarded the flight with passports stolen from tourists in Thailand.

Investigators say it was unlikely the two men had links to terrorism and appeared to be illegal migrants trying to get to Europe. However, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday authorities were re-examining the list of crew and passengers after deciding the plane had deliberately changed course after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on the way to Beijing.

Passport theft is "a very big and critical problem in Thailand," said police Maj. Gen. Apichart Suribunya, who serves as Thailand's Interpol director. "It is a problem that Interpol, the United Nations and the international community have been trying to solve for years."

So far, with limited success.

Thailand's sapphire blue waters, wildlife parks, delicious cuisine and raunchy red light districts have attracted tourists for decades. Last year alone, 22 million foreign visitors made the trip. That means "there are more passports to steal in Thailand than other countries in the region," said Clive Williams, a counterterrorism expert at Australia's Macquarie University.

Phuket is one of Thailand's tourism honeypots. Tourists flock here in droves each year for its sun, sand and laid back ambience. And some, like Italian Luigi Maraldi, lose their passports along the way.

Maraldi hired a hired a motorbike on Phuket last year. When he returned to the shop to retrieve his passport, he was told it had been given away to someone who looked like him.

His passport, along with another stolen in Phuket two years earlier, was used to board the ill-fated flight undetected, revealing startling shortcomings in the security of international travel.

Interpol says it maintains a global database of 40 million lost or stolen travel documents, but only a handful of countries actually check it before allowing passengers aboard flights. Malaysia and Thailand are not among them.

Apichart said accessing the database is not complicated, but Thai authorities use it only when travelers are deemed suspicious. It can also be time-consuming, he said, and the government has been keen to facilitate the lucrative tourism industry and ensure immigration lines aren't clogged.

"This is something we have to rethink," Apichart said.

The global intelligence company Stratfor said that passport fraud is common among human traffickers, drug smugglers, arms merchants, money launderers, fugitives and pedophiles - many of whom end up in Thailand. "Only a very small percentage," of those involved in the underground trade have terror links, Stratfor said.

Nevertheless, the threat remains a concern. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Thailand - under pressure from Western governments - vowed to crack down.

In 2004, police arrested a Bangladeshi who allegedly supplied forged passports to al-Qaida-linked terrorists, including the mastermind of the 2002 Bali attacks. In 2010, authorities nabbed Pakistani Muhammad Butt, who police believe provided false passports to suspects in the Madrid train bombings.

Two years later, Thai officers arrested Parknejed Seyed Ramin for alleged involvement in a passport racket that was thought to have aided suspects in a bomb plot discovered in Bangkok on Valentine's Day the same year. Police said Ramin's gang had been running a lucrative, 5-year-old forgery business worth millions of dollars.

Governments like the United States have fought back by embedding digital chips inside passports that contain a photo of the passport holder and information about the owner. Stratfor said that has made it tougher to alter photos, but chips can still be hacked.

In Thailand, passport forgers now use advanced technology, and their clients can evade capture by selling them to lookalikes who resemble the owners.

A senior Thai intelligence official, who has spent years hunting down passport theft rings, said investigators are currently tracking about 10 major syndicates in Thailand.

Most were run by nationals from Pakistan, India, Iran or Central Asia he said, for clients that are mostly illegal migrants. The fact that travel documents are often stolen or forged in one country and used in another, though, "makes it hard for the governments to follow and arrest them," he said.

In Phuket this week, police called meetings with dozens of owners of motorbike rental shops and told them to take copies of passports instead of the originals. It was unclear, though, how or whether they would enforce it.

Join the discussion

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Josey March 18 2014 at 11:05 AM

OK, I understand this, up to this point; but, how the hell did these two Iranians get to Malaysia if they didn't use the fake passports to leave Iran, as the dumb ass media said they did. And, if it's like the media reported, that they used their Iranian passports, why did they have to use stolen passports to get to China?

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1 reply
ep200 Josey March 18 2014 at 11:49 AM

There you go, Josey, trying to be logical. They traveled to Malaysia on their own passports, and then used the stolen ones for the flight to Beijing (which never arrived). But the Iranian authorities say these two, TRAVELLING TOGETHER, are not suspicious. Right.

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marsha March 17 2014 at 9:30 PM

I would NEVER give up my passport in another country for ANY reason:
I might never be able to return home......

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mjs444 March 17 2014 at 9:30 PM

Expecting to get forthright information from the Malaysian govt would be like expecting to get the same from N Korea or Russia. This is an extremely oppressive Government. A reporter from the inside, so to speak, believes, this was a political protest, by one of the pilots, against a very oppressive govt. Apparently, the pilot, who is married with 3 kids, moved his family from their home the day before this flight took off. He was a human rights activist. their family friend, who is gay, was arrested an thrown in jail several days earlier. Being gay in Malaysia puts you in jail for quite a long time.. The only up side to this tragedy, is that IF he really is a human rights activist! it's not likely that he's killed anyone. Hopefully, they've landed that buggy somewhere.. My theory...the Malaysian govt may already have it.. But I doubt we'd ever know..

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bluevett79 March 17 2014 at 9:05 PM

Well I guess that is one place I will not be going on vacation, I say "Phuket".

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benny March 17 2014 at 8:55 PM

2 Iranians on the plane with stolen passports ?????
It does not look that good ....

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3 replies
gordonrobroy March 17 2014 at 8:41 PM

it only needs to be pretty full of fuel to be a bomb---thats why the three 9/11 flights were picked--they had full loads of fuel...

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1 reply
daradams gordonrobroy March 17 2014 at 9:40 PM

No - it will be reloaded.... No.

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gkos22 March 17 2014 at 7:52 PM

if some people wanted to kill everyone why didnt they do away withe the plane quickly. they flew 4 who knows how many hours. it just doesnt make sense. i hope everyone is alive in some country that is part of this.

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peggy5920 March 17 2014 at 6:57 PM

So much that they need to piece together. Malaysia is not forthcoming with the information, something does not see right. Why won't they accept help from the FBI and Interpol? Pray that the families get some time of information and or closure. Its has to be awful to go what they been having to deal with. Thoughts and Prayers to the victims and families.

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Joe March 17 2014 at 4:45 PM

So you can set up procedures and checklists to control terrorism and if the authorities at the airports don't follow them, then who is to blame? I would start out by firing everyone at the airport who was responsible for verifying the identity of the passengers on this jet.

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masser March 17 2014 at 5:18 PM

stop reporting and stop all these theories until something of substance is available.

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