Interpol, which has 190 member countries, says rising international travel is creating a new market for identity theft, and bogus passports have found a market among many people: Illegal immigrants, terrorists, drug runners — pretty much anyone looking to travel unnoticed.
Sometimes, authorities are outmatched: Ticket-buying regulations and border control techniques vary from country to country, and an Interpol official says there's no one-size-fits-all explanation why some countries don't use its database systematically. The U.S, U.K. and the United Arab Emirates are the biggest users, Interpol says.
In Thailand, where immigration police last year caught a Thai man with 5,000 fake passports, officials say international cooperation helps battle the plague — but passport forgers are now using advanced technology.
"It must take great skills and expertise by our officers to detect the fake passports and visa stamps because the system cannot detect them the whole time," said Maj. Gen. Warawuth Thaweechaikarn, commander of the Immigration Police's investigative division. Thai authorities also say some new techniques include finding a lookalike to match the passport, or altering the image on the passport to look like the holder.
Interpol is now reaching out to the private sector. It's preparing an initiative called "I-Checkit" that will let businesspeople in the travel, banking, and hospitality industries screen documents against the lost-documents database when customers book a flight, check into a hotel room or open a financial account. The project is still being worked out, an official said.
With untold millions of state-issued passports in use worldwide, citizens can help with vigilance.
Police Lt. Gen. Panya Maman, told reporters that Maraldi, the 37-year-old Italian, had deposited his passport as a guarantee at a motorbike rental shop. But when he returned the bike, the shop said they'd already given his passport to some guy who looked like him. Maraldi then filed a missing passport report to local police in Phuket in July.
Speaking Sunday in Bangkok, Maraldi said he had no idea who made off with it.
Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.