Serving citizens, safer borders

In a globalised world consuls face the twin pressures of serving increasing numbers of citizens who work, travel and study abroad, while being the first line of defence to keep their borders secure from organised crime. Changing legislation and technological advances add to the challenges of the job. The Consular Conference brought together 200 consuls from more than 100 missions to exchange ideas on creative solutions to the demands of consular work in the 21st century.

Document fraud and detection

Charlie Miller of the NDFU warned officials of the surge in stolen and forged documents and measures adopted to prevent their use

News that two Iranian passengers had boarded doomed flight MH370 on Italian passports that had been stolen in Thailand drew attention worldwide to the growing black market in stolen travel documents.

Soaring trade in stolen passports
According to Interpol, there are 40 million documents from 167 countries on their Stolen and Lost Travel Document (SLTD) database. Yet not all countries check passports against the database, creating a security risk.

With stolen passports fetching between a hundred to several thousand pounds (depending on their utility), the value of the trade could be anything between four and £40 billion – much of it used to fund criminal activity such as human trafficking and terrorism.

Charlie Miller of the National Document Fraud Unit warned passport and visa officers that as travel document security features become more sophisticated, criminal gangs are responding by concentrating on the trade in stolen documents. He advised officials not only to focus on detecting a forged passport, but also on whether the holder of the passport is genuine.

He also urged officers to report any stolen or lost passports to the NDFU so that they could be removed from circulation should these travel documents turn up in the UK.

Tools for passport officers
Using samples of counterfeit passports seized recently by the NDFU, Miller showed officials how to look out for forgeries in travel documents.

Documents readers are helpful in fraud detection, but they are not a failsafe, cautioned Miller. For those officials who do not have access to high-tech document readers he advised them to familiarise themselves with basic security features (such as watermarks) that can be verified.

If there is a major flaw or a number of minor flaws, the passport is likely to be a fake. If in doubt, officials can also check the document against the SLTD database or other lost and stolen databases to see if it has been flagged.

He also warned that criminals were now using the internet and social media to match the original passport holder with an imposter with very similar features, leaving the data page untouched. Gangs also steal blank documents and populate them with false data.

Older travel documents from countries that had not yet upgraded the security features are now being targeted by fraudsters so it remains important for passport and visa officers to have a good working knowledge of security features (eg watermarks) and what genuine passports should look like. Passport officers can refer to a number of online sources (such as PRADO, see infobox).

Microchips are installed in e-passports on which the personal data is stored to verify the authenticity of the document and its holder. There are various levels of access to this information, depending on its sensitivity.

To prevent the use of a false chip or the unauthorised alteration of the data, chips have a digital signature unique to the issuing authority. To make the system interoperable globally, ICAO has developed a Public Key Directory (PKD) to which all participating countries have access, enabling document inspectors to check the digital signature of foreign passports and verify that the chip and passport are genuine.

Miller also alerted passport officers to a new microchip system (Logical Data Structure version 2.0, or LDS2) that is under discussion. Under LDS2 authorised users will be able to write additional information to the chip, such as visas and travel history to expedite inspection but safety measures are needed to prevent false information being added. This is due to become operational in 2016.

Future developments
To fix the identity of a traveller to their travel document, ICAO is working on a Traveller Identification Programme (TRIP). This aims to ensure travel documents are secure throughout the lifetime of their production and use.

This includes ensuring the ‘breeder documents’ needed for personal data (eg birth certificates) are authentic; that the production of standardised machine-readable documents is secure; that document issuance is controlled to prevent theft and tampering; that standard digital authentication and inspection systems, such as PKD, are used; and that applications have global interoperability.

Phasing out old passports
To roll out TRIP, a first step is to ensure that all travel documents are machine-readable (MRTD). ICAO has set a deadline that all non-MRTDs should be removed from circulation by 26 November 2015. While it is not yet clear what the consequences will be for those travelling on a non-MRTD after the deadline, travellers may be refused entry into a country.

Consuls and immigration officials are advised to urge travellers using non-MRTDs to renew their passports before the deadline.

Charlie Miller gives passport officers tips on identifying a forged travel document

Useful resources

National Document Fraud Unit
Tel: 020 3014 8072

Public Register of Authentic Travel and Identity Documents Online (PRADO)

CPNI Document Verification Guidance

Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database

ICAO Public Key Directory