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A suitcase containing passports in Berlin on May 15, 2014. German police raided a funeral parlor and 18 other Berlin locations linked to a gang suspected of using dead people's passports to smuggle illegal immigrants into European Union countries. / police handout via AFP/Getty Images

BERLIN - It's a common headline: A ship overloaded with refugees from Libya or elsewhere in the Arab world or Africa sinks in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe.

Almost 20,000 people have died over the past 14 years trying to do so, with the latest 17 casualties last week after a boat carrying Libyans trying to reach the Italian Island of Lampedusa sank.

In fact, the numbers of people trying to illegally cross European borders increased 48% to 107,365 last year over 2012, according to new numbers released this month by the European border agency Frontex.

And while illegal crossings across land and sea borders is a large percentage of these cases, of rising concern are those trying to enter the bloc with false or stolen identity documents, Frontex officials said.

"There has been a consistent increase in the abuse of genuine documents," said Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for Frontex. "People either use someone else's document (to enter European Union countries) ... by acting as a lookalike or impostor, or by obtaining a genuine document by issuing a fraudulent application," Cooper said.

According to figures published by Frontex, immigration officials found 9,800 people trying to cross EU borders in 2013 with false or stolen travel documents, including visas and residence permits. Most of those were stopped at member state airports, Frontex officials said.

In 2013, almost 40 million "travel" documents were reported as lost or stolen since 2002, according to Interpol.

And following an attempt by two men identified by Interpol as Iranian nationals who boarded missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 showing false passports bought in Thailand, European airport security measures are coming under scrutiny. It is believed one of the men was headed for Germany and the other for Sweden via Beijing to apply for asylum.

"It remains of serious concern to Interpol that approximately four out of every 10 international passengers are not being screened against our SLTD (Stolen Lost Travel Documents) database, and this should be a worry for us all," Interpol chief Ronald K. Noble said.

In 2013, fewer than 20 of Interpol's 190 member countries systematically checked passports of international travelers against the international policing agency's stolen and lost passport data base.

Countries in Southeast Asia have a particularly hard time properly dealing with travel documents as they lack budgetary resources, although Thailand received money from the United States in the wake of 9/11 to upgrade its airport border controls, security analysts said.

"It's not a question of authorities not wanting to do more - they don't have the money to put into technology," Paul Quaglia director of Bangkok-based security consultancy PQA Associates told USA Today. "In Thailand, for example, now at the major airports, particularly in Bangkok, the US government several years ago put in some money to give them technology and training to really upgrade their system and it's pretty good now."

Before the upgrade, controls at the airport were lax with many people trading boarding cards in the airport transit zone, Quaglia said.

Still, despite the improvements Thailand is something of a paradise for criminal networks and individuals selling and buying passports, Quaglia said.

"I wasn't surprised to hear that these false passports originated here," Quaglia said. "It's a great place if you are in the false passport business because there are so many different nationalities that travel here. So you have a pretty wide variety of passports from which to choose either to steal or to find if they are lost or to buy."

Some people use false passports to get a visa for a particular country while others use them to get out of their own countries, especially when trying to go abroad on asylum claims.

"Often, asylum seekers come from countries without a functional government, so the country might not be able to issue a passport," said Andrew Kim, assistant professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. "And even if it could, the asylum seeker may understandably be unwilling to ask the country (persecuting him) for a passport to leave."

It's not just asylum seekers who seek out false travel documents. Terrorists and criminals requiring a false identity when committing cross-border crimes - such as human, drug or arms trafficking - are also in the market, security analysts said.

"False passports are a small piece of a larger pie that also includes a lot of illegal activity, human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, not necessarily terrorism but not necessarily not," Quaglia said.

"Any time you need to have a false identity to engage in a criminal act across a national border, you probably need a false document. ? Professional criminals not only have false passports, but they will have supporting documentation, maybe a credit card, maybe a driver's license," Quaglia said.

And there are a number of ways such documents can be attained.

Completely false documents can be purchased on the black market or the identity falsified once a document has been stolen or lost. This has become more difficult as passport security features become more sophisticated.

"Up to several years ago ? it was quite easy to swap a photo. You would take a genuine passport and then glue your own photo on the stamp and it would work," Frontex spokeswoman Cooper said.

It's now becoming common to try to find a passport of a person you resemble or to obtain an authentic passport by presenting false documents when requesting a passport or visa.

"In many countries, you obtain your passport by providing, for example, a birth certificate," Cooper said. "And birth certificates in many countries do not include the level of security features of a modern passport or an ID, which might be a little bit easier to falsify."

In countries such as Thailand, it's relatively easy for criminal organizations trying to buy passports from partygoers who have run out of money and are looking to make some quick cash.

Tourists can then easily get a new passport and resume their travels after filling in a quick, one-page lost passport report which the person then takes to their embassy.

"It's a pretty straight-up transaction," Quaglia said. "You can sell it to someone, no questions asked, and then you just go to the police station and say you lost your passport. It's basically just paperwork to get a new one."

Contributing: Jennifer Collins



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: EU, Interpol fight epidemic of stolen, fake passports

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