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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Has the Jackal passport scam had its day?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

The bestselling thriller The Day of the Jackal shockingly revealed how crooks used the birth certificates of dead babies to obtain fake passports. Almost 32 years on, the loophole is being plugged... maybe.

It was long an open secret among mercenaries, smugglers and forgers, but in 1972 the staggering ease with which ne'er-do-wells could adopt a false identity in the UK shocked the nation's law-abiding.

Millions of people were horrified to read of a vicious assassin who was given watertight official identity documents by the Home Office by simply masquerading as a long dead Briton.

The passport - issued promptly within four days of his application - helped the man to commit a string of murders and evade police forces across Europe.

"It's one of the easiest things in the world to acquire a false British passport," the public were told in 1972. However, since this revelation came not in a journalistic investigation or a government report, but in a bestselling novel, many readers took the claim with a pinch of salt.

It couldn't be that easy, could it? Well, yes it is, says Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal.

Frederick Forsyth
Good God! Only now are they closing the loophole - I told them years ago how to stop this
Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal

"I asked a forger how to get hold of a passport. He told me there were three ways. Steal one and substitute a photograph. Bribe an official for one 'en blanc' in which you can fill in your details. Or apply for one under a false name."

For his thriller - about a marksman hired to assassinate France's President de Gaulle - Mr Forsyth chose the latter method, by far the most straightforward and effective.

The book's protagonist - the Jackal - trawls three village graveyards looking for the headstone of a baby boy who, had he not died, would have been about the same age as the assassin.

Taking the details of the late Alexander James Quentin Duggan to the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, the Jackal buys a copy of the deceased's birth certificate - all the proof he needs to successfully apply for a passport.

"When the book was published, I assumed this loophole would have been closed by officialdom within weeks. That was almost 32 years ago," Mr Forsyth told BBC News Online.

So why has the loophole not been plugged? "Because bureaucrats are naturally lazy and indolent," says Mr Forsyth.

Passports being processed
A fraction of these will be fraudulent
Last year, Labour's Lord Bassam of Brighton told critics "the government take the so-called Day of the Jackal loophole seriously", but said that only "0.03% of all issues are fraudulent".

This would still represent 1,500 dodgy passports being granted in the UK each year - an estimate some have said is perhaps too conservative.

Even if Lord Bassam feels the number of fraudulent applicants to be small, the harm which could be wrought by this modest group is more alarming.

In the past, the Jackal ploy has been employed both by Soviet spies of the KGB and members of the IRA operating in the UK mainland.

Identity fraud now costs Britain 1.3bn a year - and the courts have recently heard a spate of cases involving illegal immigrants buying Jackal-style forged passports based on the identities of dead babies.

Crooks find their false identities in graveyards
Trip abroad, anyone?
But the days of the Jackal scam may be numbered. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) - which is responsible for keeping records on births and deaths - is in the middle of a consultation process which may see the paper-based system, operated since 1837, transferred to a computer database.

"This would significantly diminish the possibility of someone borrowing an identity," says Kieron Mahony, of the ONS.

By linking birth and death records electronically, if anyone tried to apply for a passport in the name of a dead baby "it would be immediately obvious", he says.

The details of the electronic system have yet to be worked out (and the ONS wants your views - see Internet Links on right), but Mr Mahony says the only way to "fully realise the benefits" of computerisation would be to go back and put the records of all living Britons into the database.

This would prove more expensive than just logging new births, deaths and marriages on the system - but it would stand a better chance of foiling would-be Jackals.

Stamping a passport
"Been anywhere nice, Mr AN Other?"
"Of course, bureaucrats would think of some expensive way of solving the problem," says Mr Forsyth.

"I told them years ago how to stop this. When someone requests a birth certificate, they are asked: 'Is it for you?' If it is, they must then produce four other pieces of identification. If it is not their certificate, the copy they are given should be stamped with a D for duplicate. Then it can't be used to gain a passport," he says.

"It's as simple as that and all you need is a 2 dye stamp."

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