Page last updated at 01:01 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 02:01 UK

Fake passports prompt fraud fear

By Alex Bushill
BBC News

Passport
UK passports have become more difficult to forge

High street banks have called on the government to set up a database to help them identify forged foreign passports.

The banks are worried it is still too easy to use a counterfeit passport from abroad to open a bank account, or to get an overdraft or credit card.

The British Bankers Association (BBA) has accused the government of not doing enough to combat financial fraud.

Fraud costs the UK economy an estimated £20bn a year, but the BBA said it was willing to pay for a solution.

Priority

While it is harder now than ever before to fake a UK passport, the banks say they cannot rely on foreign embassies to verify these documents, including an increasing number of fake passports from the new EU member states.

"Fraud - and financial crime generally - are not a priority so we would encourage government to address that," said Richard Cook, of the BBA.

These criminals tend to work on a mass basis
Colin Woodcock, Serious Organised Crime Agency

"What we would like to see is a resource, or database of some sort, that is maintained by government, say the Foreign Office, and keeps up to date and current information about the different security measures that different nationalities use on their passports."

The BBC found how easy it was to find offers of forged documents online. With just a couple of clicks of a mouse anyone can find fake driving licences, National Insurance numbers and passports from the UK and abroad for sale over the internet.

A fake Estonian passport or UK driving licence with details provided by a buyer appeared to be on offer for £120.

The Identity and Passport service runs its own passport validation service which has checked a 100,000 UK passports in the last two years.

Of these, 1,000 fraudulent passports were detected, saving £4m in prevented fraud. But there is no equivalent service for foreign passports.

Training

In a darkened room, hidden away in the Serious Organised Crime Agency's (Soca) London headquarters, the BBC was shown a small sample of the passports the fraud team have seized over recent months. Fake passports from across Africa and Europe piled high.

Colin Woodcock, head of fraud at Soca, said the agency was now running training courses with the banks to help their staff spot fake foreign passports. Soca has managed to reduce the number of fraudulent documents coming from Nigeria in particular from a flood to a trickle.

But he conceded that the problem was likely to reappear in other countries and that this was a crime committed on an industrial scale.

"These criminals tend to work on a mass basis. So if you supply hundreds of passports and only one of which opens up a bank account, that is still money to them. They are happy to work on those percentages," he said.

That is why the BBA wants a database run by the Foreign Office to keep it up to date with security measures taken overseas and what each foreign passports should look like.

The Foreign Office declined to comment on whether such a scheme would be helpful or cost-effective.



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