Are Stolen Passports Really That Common?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/09/2014 09:34:00 AM
[On a personal note, dear readers, rest assured that our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the lost Malaysia Airlines flight. Alike the missing Boeing 777, the airline has a sterling safety record, making things all the more mysterious.]

One of the more notable bits of news in surrounding the mysterious disappearance of MH370 is the absence of two European passengers who were supposed to be on board the flight but were actually not since their passports had been stolen:
[A]fter the airline released a manifest, Austria denied that one of its citizens was aboard the flight. The Austrian citizen was safe and sound, and his passport had been stolen two years ago, Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Weiss said.

Similarly, Italy's foreign ministry confirmed none of its citizens were on Flight 370, even though an Italian was listed on the manifest. On Saturday, Italian police visited the home of the parents of Luigi Maraldi, the man whose name appeared on the manifest, to inform them about the missing flight, said a police official in Cesena, in northern Italy. Maraldi's father, Walter, told police he had just spoken to his son, who was fine and not on the missing flight, said the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media. Maraldi was vacationing in Thailand, his father said.

The police official said Maraldi had reported his passport stolen in Malaysia last August and had obtained a new one. But U.S. law enforcement sources told CNN that both the Austrian and Italian passports were stolen in Thailand.
It's all very curious. You would think that it would not be so easy to fly using illicitly obtained documents for obvious reasons: First, security has obviously been tightened post-9/11. Second, new biometric technologies--fingerprint protection and facial images--have come into widespread use to prevent exactly the kind of identity theft we have just observed. Europe has been at the forefront of implementing biometric technologies. What's more, while there is a problem authenticating the passport holder's identity when a passport is lost, this should not be a problem when the passport is stolen since the biometric information is all there:
However, chipbased e-passports have the same problem as conventional passports in authenticating the passport owner in the event the passport is stolen or lost.
Using deductive logic, matters become elementary, my dear. The likely reason why people still steal travel documents is because authorities are one step behind in preventing their use once stolen. That is, actual enforcement has not caught up with the promises of these new biometric technologies. Hence the notion of "crime entrepreneurs":
Most crime entrepreneurs are not the diabolical creative geniuses described by the mass media, but mobile risk takers responding to changing opportunities and law enforcement by trial and (custodial) error. This may imply that individual changes usually take place gradually: smugglers change commodities, e.g. from smuggling hard drugs to smuggling soft drugs on a larger scale; some smugglers enter organized cross-border fraud, mainly fiddling the VAT system or EC regulations or they broaden their trade to neighbouring branches while stil] using the same skills and social networks. Those who had been fencing stolen passports for forgery noticed that these documents were also valuable to those engaged in the smuggling of illegal immigrants.
Otherwise, it is certainly a researchable question what the extent of passport theft is in the face of clear lapses in enforcement.

UPDATE: Authorities now suggest that the two flyers using stolen passports were Iranian, but with no terror ties.