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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 17:30 GMT
Criminals cash in on passports
by David Fuller
BBC News Online

After a Romanian couple are jailed for running a passport "factory" worth millions of pounds, BBC News Online takes a look at the growing problem.

Passport
Several sophisticated passport scams have been uncovered
The amount of cash involved in passport fraud is immense, with the National Crime Squad saying immigration crime is now as big a money-spinner for criminal gangs as the drugs trade.

With an illegal passport fetching as much as 8,000 from those desperate to enter the UK, and millions wanting to live in the country, there are fortunes to be made.

A recent police operation in the West Midlands uncovered a gang who had been smuggling people into the UK with false documents for over 12 years.

They are thought to have made around 50m.

"The cost ranges from 3,000 to 4,000 for just a passport, through to 8,000 for a full package," a spokeswoman for the National Crime Squad (NCS) told BBC News Online.

Organised criminal enterprises bring [people] into the UK in dangerous conditions, in many instances subjecting them to further extortion and exploitation

"This includes coaching in English, a chaperone at the port or airport and possibly a safe house for the first couple of nights in the UK."

She said gangs used several different methods, from altering stolen and bought passports, to more sophisticated deceptions involving immigration officers, airline staff or diplomatic sources.

In 2002 - the last year for which figures are available - the Home Office says there were 166,000 passports reported missing in the UK, either lost or stolen.

Criminals are willing to pay around 500 for a British passport, in which they then substitute a different picture - or if they are very skilled, change the entire back page.

Another method uncovered was one which saw people posting their passport to a contact in the UK, where it is stamped with a "leave to remain" authorisation stamp, either forged or stolen, and posted back to the holder.

When the passport holder then arrives at immigration it appears they have been abroad temporarily and are returning to the UK.

Refugees en route to the UK
Passport fraud is connected to organised crime
Sophisticated scams

Police forces believe the crime creates misery for many who enter the country.

"Organised criminal enterprises bring them into the UK in dangerous conditions," said Yorkshire's Chief Constable, Grahame Maxwell, "in many instances subjecting them to further extortion and exploitation."

Home Office minister Beverly Hughes said: "Passports are valuable documents to criminals.

"They use them to create the multiple identities that help them commit serious and organised crimes, and they are a key document in stealing individuals' identities.

"Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, costs the country 1.3bn every year, and can ruin victims' lives."

In April 2000 a joint approach to the problem was launched - called Reflex - involving agencies including the security services, immigration and police forces.

It targets the criminals behind the schemes, rather than those coming into the country - using undercover policing and intelligence gathering.

Biometric information

The Reflex task force has uncovered several sophisticated scams, in addition to the one in the West Midlands.

Earlier this month, a court confiscated 200,000 from a gang in Dagenham, who had been jailed in 2002 after 450 high-quality forged passports were found in a flat in north London.

Police recovered hundreds of counterfeit pages, as well as laminating machines and passports in various stages of production, with a street value of around 2m.

The Home Office is introducing several measures to tackle the problem, including adding biometric information - fingerprint or iris scans - to passports from 2005 and new procedures to fast-track the reporting of lost and stolen documents.




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