Missing plane throws spotlight on passport theft
In this March 12, 2014 photo, Luigi Maraldi of Italy whose stolen passport was used by a passenger boarding a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, talks to a reporter at Phuket police station in Phuket province, southern Thailand. Maraldi lost his passport when he hired a motorbike on Phuket last year. When he returned to the shop to retrieve his passport, he was told it had been given away to someone who looked just like him. His passport, along with another stolen in Phuket two years earlier, was used to board the ill-fated flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing undetected, revealing startling shortcomings in the security of international travel. Interpol said it maintains a global database of 40 million lost or stolen travel documents. The organization said only a handful of countries actually check the database before allowing passengers to board international flights. Malaysia and Thailand are not among them. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — When a German tourist refused to surrender his passport as collateral at a car rental stand along a popular beach in the Thai resort city of Phuket, the woman behind the counter pulled out a bag full of passport books to prove he could trust her.
But the tourist, Falko Tillwich, was insistent. "I said absolutely not ... no way," he recalled, and later handed over his driver's license instead.
Tillwich's concern: losing vital travel documents, or worse — having them stolen by criminal syndicates that are exploiting lax law enforcement and corrupt police here to support a global network of human smugglers, fugitives and sometimes, terrorists.
Those worries were heightened this week after investigations into Malaysian jetliner that went missing March 8 with 239 people aboard revealed two Iranian citizens had boarded the flight with passports stolen from tourists in Thailand.
Investigators say it was unlikely the two men had links to terrorism and appeared to be illegal migrants trying to get to Europe. However, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday authorities were re-examining the list of crew and passengers after deciding the plane had deliberately changed course after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on the way to Beijing.
In this March 13, 2014 photo, German tourist Falko Tillwich, left, holds his passport near his German friend, who didn't want to give his name as they try to contact a car rental on Pathong Beach in Phuket province, southern Thailand. Thailand’s sapphire blue waters, wildlife parks, delicious cuisine and raunchy red light districts have attracted tourists for decades. Phuket is one of Thailand’s tourism honeypots. Tourists flock here in droves each year for its sun, sand and laid back ambience. And some lose their passports along the way. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Passport theft is "a very big and critical problem in Thailand," said police Maj. Gen. Apichart Suribunya, who serves as Thailand's Interpol director. "It is a problem that Interpol, the United Nations and the international community have been trying to solve for years."
So far, with limited success.
Thailand's sapphire blue waters, wildlife parks, delicious cuisine and raunchy red light districts have attracted tourists for decades. Last year alone, 22 million foreign visitors made the trip. That means "there are more passports to steal in Thailand than other countries in the region," said Clive Williams, a counterterrorism expert at Australia's Macquarie University.
Phuket is one of Thailand's tourism honeypots. Tourists flock here in droves each year for its sun, sand and laid back ambience. And some, like Italian Luigi Maraldi, lose their passports along the way.
Maraldi hired a hired a motorbike on Phuket last year. When he returned to the shop to retrieve his passport, he was told it had been given away to someone who looked like him.