The tragic loss of a Malaysian Airlines plane between Kuala Lumpur and Bejing with over 200 souls on board is just another reminder why you should always take special care with your passport.
The plane that went missing included two passengers flying on passports that had been reported stolen in Phuket up to two years ago. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said more than 60,000 passports – both Thai and foreign – were reported missing or stolen in Thailand between January 2012 and June 2013. Both corruption and lax application of the law exist at most levels, both here and in neighbouring countries, what I find most concerning especially considering the sheer number of thefts is that Thailand does not check passports against Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database – which has more than 40 million entries worldwide.
Countries in South East Asia have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to passport theft, especially Thailand which receives millions of tourists every year. Considering how easy it is to get false identification in Backpacker areas like Khao San Road, and that police are willing to turn a blind eye to almost any crime for money – it makes sense that criminal organisations are going to use naive tourists as a source of cash as well as both real and fake travel documents.
What Could Your Passport Be Used For?
- A war crimes suspect who tried to attend a conference in Congo, but was instead arrested
- The killer of the Serbian prime minister crossed 27 borders on a missing passport before he was caught
- Samantha Lewthwaite, the former wife of one of the suicide bombers in the 2005 attack on London’s transit system, escaped capture when she produced a fraudulently obtained South African passport.
Human Trafficking & Illegal Immigration
Stolen passports can either be used by someone who looks like the person to travel, or can be modified with new photos (depending on security levels on the passport and biometric information).
Many countries are simply too lazy to check Interpol’s database of stolen passports on the border, so the use of stolen documents to move people voluntarily or against their will internationally using stolen passports is common, especially from South East Asia to countries in the EU (which is essentially borderless once you get in, and pretty easy to get into if you come via, say…the Croatian border into Slovenia which I crossed 5 times without a single passport check).
Identify Theft & Crime
The last thing you want is a drug trafficker flying in and out of South East Asia using your personal details, getting caught and ending up with you being on some list of known criminals or drug traffickers.
Again this is quite common when it comes to stolen passports. I’ve read on Thaivisa.com about a guy who had two passports stolen in one year. Later while travelling he was pulled aside and interrogated in Bali, after an African man had been caught smuggling cocaine using his ID and blacklisted.
Of course the issue that everyone is talking about – what happened to the recent disappearing plane. As of yet, no one knows but the facts remain that we have a plane with 200 passengers that has literally vanished and two of the passengers were using false IDs and stolen passports.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the risks associated with your personal documents being used by international terrorist groups to kill or harm others in the name of a political or religious message. Not only will this prevent you from ever travelling freely again, but others might be harmed in the process.
In 2010, two Pakistanis and a Thai woman were arrested in Thailand on suspicion of making false passports for Al-Qaeda linked groups, as part of an international operation linked to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Madrid train bombings in 2004.
The last thing you want is a criminal or terrorist organisation using your passport to travel, resulting in your name permanently being on a no fly or similar travel or immigration blacklist.
How Could You Lose Your Passport:
Motorbike & Car Rentals
More often than not you will be asked for some form of deposit when renting a motorbike in Asia. Sometimes this will be a drivers licence (which is silly considering you need this to ride legally) other times it will be cash, but more often than not it will be a valid passport containing your entry stamp.
There is absolutely zero security with these passports, usually they are kept in a top draw of a desk, a folder, or a shoulder bag. Rental agencies couldn’t care less as you are just one of thousands of potential customers, you aren’t likely to come back, and you don’t really have any choice.
While there are plenty of legitimate bike rental places that don’t extort money out of tourists for small scratches and repairs that cost a few hundred baht to fix, there are also loads that do. The worst thing you can do is tell them that you have an urgent flight or ferry to catch.
Stories are common of people with dual citizenship ditching a second passport to avoid the overpriced repair fees, or even reporting their passport as lost of stolen after doing a runner. What do you think happens with these passports afterwards? Bear in mind that these rental agencies often have law enforcement support in their repair scams as well.
In Phuket, Luigi Maraldi lost his passport this way, by giving his passport to a rental agency as collateral on a motorbike, which then managed to get “lost” somehow by the rental agency. The passport was later used to board flight MH370.
When Maraldi asked for his back at a bike shop hugging Phuket’s western coast, the owner told him she’d forked it over to an Italian who’d “said Mr. Maraldi was his husband.”
After all, all us Farang look the same
Kiwis – the NZ Embassy is quite clear regarding this. Do not leave your passport with rental agencies, and if you get into trouble doing this, they will not step in to help.
Hotel & Guesthouses
You are required to submit your passport details and immigration information when checking into any hotel or guesthouse in Thailand. Some might take your passport as a bond to prevent damage or “for safe keeping”. I’ve seen guesthouses where passports are literally sitting in a basket on the front desk where anyone can take them.
Of course there are other reports of break ins to hotel rooms where passports and other items are stolen to order. So always make sure you have your passport safely and securely stored when it is not on you.
One of the biggest causes of theft to travellers is other travellers. There are plenty of backpackers travelling on ultra low budgets with absolutely zero respect for others. Security at guesthouses and dormitories is often low, and people are often under the influence of booze and other substances. Its not hard for someone to go into your bag and steal your travel documents, especially if they can sell them down the road to a willing buyer.
I’ve even seen someone lose their passport on Koh Phangan after leaving their backpack unattended on the side of the road for two minutes while they went back into a guesthouse to drop the keys off. Two ladyboys on a scooter sped past and stole the pack containing the travellers passports.
Visa Services & Agencies
Up until recently I would have recommended using Visa agencies to speed up the acquisition of getting visas from Thailand and surrounding countries. Now that I’ve lived here longer and heard all the horror stories I’d advise against it, unless you personally know the owners of the agency, their couriers and everyone else involved in the process.
Remember agencies that take your passport out of the country for a visa stamp are illegal. I’ve got a friend who lived on one of the Islands who used an agent to do their visa runs, one time the courier got busted running drugs on a ferry to the mainland with 20 passports in their possession. Long story short, none of those passports ever returned to their owners and he ended up overstaying illegally for two years until he got his passport sorted out and enough cash to pay the fines on the borders. He’s lived here for two decades, and now knows better!
Immigration & Embassies
You’d think it would be safe to give your passport to a government agency, think again. I’ve been into various immigration departments to get extensions to my Thai visa, and while the main complex in Bangkok has always done things correctly and above board – others are slightly more lax in their approach to passport security.
While getting a re entry permit I saw just how relaxed they were, as passports that had been processed were left in a plastic basket for foreigners (or Thais) to pick up, no ID required.
I’ve heard similar horror stories in Laos at certain relaxed embassies where if you don’t pick up your passport straight it can be picked up by locals who claim to be your “agent”.
Remember Thai embassies have a pretty poor reputation with this sort of stuff, recently staff have been involved in Visa theft in the Savanakhet, Kuala Lumpur & Hague embassies – one of my mates even got caught up on this after the visa he arranged through an agent turned out to be illegitimate – he ended up dealing with legal issues for 6 months while on bail for visa fraud. Of course no Thais were found at fault.
Thai law technically requires all foreigners to carry their passport at all times, where ever they are. This means when you are at the beach, night club, anywhere. How many passports have gone missing while swimming or drunk in some bar.
Personally I never take my passport with me unless it is absolutely required or I’m out of town. I take photo ID with me as well as a laminated copy of my passport and a copy of my latest visa and entry stamp – my passport stays locked up at home.
So far I’ve never had any problems… yet.
There are even reports of broke tourists selling or renting their passports for $1-2000 USD. I’ve never heard or seen this first hand, and the reporting on it seems a bit dubious, but one thing I’ve learned while travelling is never to underestimate the stupidity of backpackers while travelling. Apparently this happens reasonably often in the Khao San Road area, where the tourists will report their passport stolen, claim the costs on travel insurance and travel on documents provided by their embassy. It all seems a little fish to me however, as generally speaking you need to travel back to your home country when on emergency travel documents – maybe they just use it for a one way ticket home!
How To Keep Your Passport Safe When Travelling
- Always know where your passport is, keep it safely on you while travelling or under lock and key when not
- Invest in a Travel safe, as many hostels or guesthouses do not have secure storage
- Do not give your passport out as a deposit on vehicle rentals
- Do not use agencies or third parties for Visas
- Use common sense when getting visas from foreign embassies and pick your passport up as soon as its ready
- Report your passport stolen to the police if it goes missing and contact your embassy straight away.