How to Spot a Phony Passport
Fake United States passports, while extremely hard to get, are some of the most sought after identification documents in the world. The best fakes are legitimate passports that are issued based on false identity documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards. The worst can often be spotted lay people, and those in the middle, where most forgeries fall, require special equipment and a trained eye to set them apart from the millions of legitimate passports used by travelers every year.
What to Look For
Legitimate passports that have been issued based on false identity documents are the hardest to spot. In the United States, birth certificates and the process to issue them are not standardized between states. Obtaining a birth certificate is often as easy as putting in an application. The birth certificate is then used to get a Social Security number. In 2009 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an investigation into the passport application process and found that in each of four cases, agents were able to obtain a United States passport based on a variety of false documents. Without access to the documents used to apply for the passport, these fakes are nearly impossible to for the average person to identify.
Altered passports may sometimes be identified by the naked eye, but if you aren't a security professional, this may be difficult. Some methods of alteration include peeling back the laminate and replacing the photo and running a legitimate passport through a laser printer. Some passport security features only show up under special lights, and once exposed, are easily spotted.
Fake passports that are the easiest to spot are those in which the document has been physically altered, such as a photo cut out and replaced, or those with missing or altered control numbers. Control numbers are located in the line of code that runs along the bottom of the first page of the passport. Another way to easily spot a fake is to check the laminate for embossed security images. Lack of embossed images is a sure sign the passport is fake.
According to the Justice Department, "Possession of a false identification document with intent to defraud the United States" carries a maximum penalty of 15 years without parole and a fine up to $250,000. Suspect passports should be reported to the State Department for investigation. Provide as much information as you can. Contact the State Department by phone by calling 1-877-487-2778 between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern time, or by mailing the information to U.S. Department of State, Passport Services, 1111 19th Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20036.