Passport fraud 'a global threat'

2010-01-29 13:35

Davos - The biggest threat facing the world now, according to the chief of international police agency Interpol, is passport fraud - the millions of stolen documents that could be used by terrorists or criminals to travel worldwide.

It's not an obvious danger but one that came to the public eye after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a US-bound airliner.

Airport body scanners, embraced by many in the aftermath of that attempt, are a misguided solution, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K Noble told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday night.

"The greatest threat in the world is that last year there were 500 million, half a billion, international air arrivals worldwide where travel documents were not compared against Interpol databases," he said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in this Swiss ski resort, where 2 500 business and political leaders are gathered all week.

"Right now in our database we have over 11 million stolen or lost passports," he said. "These passports are being used, fraudulently altered and are being given to terrorists, war criminals, drug traffickers, human traffickers."

The solution, he said, is better intelligence, and better intelligence sharing, among countries.

"You don't know the motivation behind the person carrying the passport," he said. If you're a terrorist, he said, "Are you going to carry explosives that are going to be detected? No."

Many US airports use the body-scanning machines and airports in other countries are adopting them after Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on December 25 on the Detroit-bound flight.

Doubts over no-fly lists

Noble questioned "the amount of money and resources that go into these (body-scanning) machines".

He cited a case two weeks ago in a Caribbean country where five people were arrested carrying European passports, but were caught after they were found to be carrying stolen passports - one stolen back in 2001. The five were found to have "definite links to crime, organised crime, human trafficking but no definite links to terrorism", he said, though he wouldn't name the country.

He said US authorities are recognising the threat of passport fraud - in 2006 US authorities scanned the Interpol database about 2 000 times, while last year they did so 78 million times. They came up with 4 000 people travelling on stolen or lost passports.

Intelligence experts have cast doubt on the usefulness of the so-called no-fly lists of suspects shared among airports worldwide, saying that criminals can change their names or make simple name spelling changes that render them untrackable.

Noble agreed that the lists "are useful but I don't believe they are the be-all and end-all". He said he's concerned about governments' efforts to expand them.

Noble, who has expanded Interpol's efforts to fight terrorism, cybercrime, corruption and maritime piracy in his nearly 10 years at the helm of France-based Interpol, also had words of warning for people hoping to donate money to Haiti after its devastating earthquake.

"Be very careful," he said, citing several cases of fraudsters preying on donors' generosity and stealing their money via fake charity websites.