Counterfeit ID cards for press, students, airline crews, driving licenses, university diplomas and even the FBI are sold openly on Bangkok’s famous tourist centre. How do the vendors get away with it? Maxmilian Wechsler finds out.
THAILAND may be the only country in the world where counterfeit documents are openly displayed for sale on the street. Along Khao San Road in Bangkok are around a dozen stalls – the first opposite Chana Songkhram police station, under a giant screen showing two police patrolmen and a sign saying “24-Hour Protection and Services” – offering a huge variety of fake identity cards and other documents.
The documents include paper and plastic ID cards for press, students, cabin crews of major airlines, Interpol, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as citizenship and driving licenses. There are also diplomas and certificates identifying the bearer as graduating from any of a number of prestigious universities, mostly in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The stalls offering counterfeit documents blend effortlessly into the pandemonium of Khao San Road, best known as a haven for backpackers in Southeast Asia, with its cheap hotels, guesthouses, internet cafes, restaurants, travel agencies and tattoo parlors. It is nothing new to find these stalls among the other vendors selling a tremendous variety of merchandise along the street and connecting narrow alleyways; the sale of counterfeit documents has been plainly obvious in the area for over a decade.
What has changed is that the bogus documents on offer and the places selling them have increased significantly over the years and the illegal trade is more out in the open than ever. Reports in the international media, including on CNN, have not slowed down the trade and in fact may have given it a boost through advertising since no action is ever taken by the police or other authorities.
“Every time their criminal activities are exposed, the sellers and people behind the racket are encouraged and release more IDs and documents, and their displays are getting bigger as well,” said a policeman who agreed to talk to on condition of anonymity.
The publicity has attracted customers from abroad who come to Khao San Road after collecting orders from people in their respective countries, according to several vendors of counterfeit documents.
It is believed that the trade started in Thailand more than 30 years ago with student cards sold by travel agencies near the Malaysia Hotel. The customers used them to buy discounted airline tickets. Student cards, and later press cards, were used in the 1980s as supporting documents for stolen travellers’ cheques and credit cards.
These days, to order a counterfeit ID or other document is very easy. Just select the one you want shown on display or from a catalogue at a stall, give the seller your photo, write down the personal information you want to appear on the document, put your signature on the piece of paper, pay a 50 percent deposit on the agreed price and the counterfeit is delivered within about an hour, wherever you like. If you don’t have a photo, the seller will take you to one of several photo shops on the street. Current prices are about 300 baht (US$ 13) for a paper ID, 800 baht for a plastic ID and 2,500 baht for a university diploma. You can get an ID made under any name and use any photo you wish.
To find out how these operations work on Khao San Road, a few years ago I arranged, with the help of a foreign woman in Bangkok, to have an ID card made for the German left-wing militant and co-founder of the Red Army Faction, Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who was jailed in 1972.
Another order I placed was for a university certificate for Vladimir I. Lenin, founder of the Bolshevik Party and first leader of the Soviet Union. Both orders were filled with authentic photos supplied by myself without any problem.
According to another Thai police officer, who also wished to keep his name disclosed and who works with colleagues from foreign intelligence and police agencies, they [the visiting officers] are utterly shocked when they visit Khao San and see the stalls with samples of counterfeit IDs and other documents.
The genuine issuer of the documents which have been counterfeited [be it a foreign government agency, business or university] would have to come here, make a complaint with the police and certify that the item seized is a counterfeit. No one will go to the trouble and expense of flying here over one or a few fake documents.
“After the procedure is explained to the foreign police liaisons, they agree that it’s not worth it if the genuine issuers don’t cooperate, because in the end the police would have to return the counterfeits to the person arrested and let them go free, and also face the prospect of being sued for an unlawful arrest,” the policeman said.
He explained why the counterfeit documents are sold only on Khao San Road and not in other tourist areas of Bangkok: “Khao San is a centre for foreign backpackers who are more likely to look for counterfeits than, for example, wealthier tourists who visit Silom or Sukhumvit.
“In the past, the counterfeit IDs were bought on Khao San Road by tourists who viewed them mostly as amusing souvenirs. But later the news spread around the world that they were available and reasonably authentic in appearance, so they attracted more customers, including those wishing to use them to commit various crimes.
“The second reason why they are found only on Khao San Road is logistics. The photo shops and the places where the documents are actually produced are nearby and protected – they are in on the scam. Everything is well-organized.”
The policeman said that the best way to stamp out the trade would be to raid locations where the documents and the equipment used to make them are stored, and seize them. This could be possible, he continued, by making several purchases through an informant and watching what happens next. Hopefully it would lead the police to the operations centre and the masterminds.
“But then we would still have to follow the procedure I described earlier,” the policeman said, and then brought up another problem: “My unit has 18 cases pending involving foreigners, and in these cases we have around 5,000 pages of documents that need to be translated to Thai, as is required by the law. To find a translator who can do the job is not easy.
“Documents are in Spanish, German and other languages. Normally a good translator will charge 1,000 baht per page. It isn’t easy to find good translators for languages other than English, and even if we find them we can’t afford to pay them.”
The police officer also said that the relevant laws are decades old and obsolete, with many loopholes. He suggested the laws should be amended. The laws which cover counterfeit documents are in sections 264 and 265 of the BE 2499 (1958) Thai Penal Code. Section 264 stipulates that counterfeiting or alteration of documents is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine not exceeding six thousand baht.
If an official document such as a driving licence is counterfeited, Section 265 stipulates a penalty of six months to five years in jail and a fine of one thousand to ten thousand baht.
The policeman pointed out that the Khao San vendors sell only foreign counterfeits, not Thai ID cards or driving licenses, because if they did they would be arrested immediately, and they know it. With foreign documents they are safe. Their only fear seems to be publicity, although as yet this hasn’t hurt their operations either.
No photos allowed
A recent trip to Khao San confirmed that the sellers of counterfeit IDs and other documents are still doing a good business out in the open. Stalls with huge displays of sample counterfeit documents are easy to find. However, after we started taking photos of the displays, vendors standing at the stalls started to shout: “No photo, no photo.”
Some stalls were vacant until a potential customer approached to view the samples, at which point a vendor who was sitting or standing nearby came up to make a sales pitch. Several policemen from the nearby police station walked past the displays while we were there.
One seller who didn’t like us taking photos attempted to shield the display, and said in good English: “You can’t take photos on this street.”
“Call the police,” we replied. After that another nearby vendor quickly carried his display to a local shop but returned after a few minutes. Before we started taking photos an elderly male vendor told us, “I don’t do passports because this is too dangerous. Some Thais are doing this with foreigners. I can introduce you to them if you like.”
The man said he’d been selling fake documents for many years and has many customers who call him before arriving in Thailand to place their order. Some send photos and personal information to him through the mail.
“Some customers order many IDs,” he said, adding that business is good but there are too many people now selling on the street. He said he meets his customers at their hotel, guesthouse or restaurant to discuss business.
Tools of terror
While counterfeit IDs are souvenirs and novelty items for some, the Thai policeman and foreign police liaison warned that they have been used by criminals to commit fraud and even terrorist activities in Thailand and especially overseas.
“Phony IDs, coupled with stolen and altered or forged passports are being used by terrorists to gain access to the European Union and other countries. We are really concerned about this matter. We have evidence, and so do the Thai authorities,” the foreign policeman said.
“Criminals and terrorists know they can go to Khao San Road and get a good quality counterfeit document quickly. The quality of the fakes is getting better and the activity represents a serious threat to the security of many countries,” the liaison officer said.
“Criminals are looking for fake supporting documents because passports of most countries are pretty sophisticated and difficult to alter, especially to exchange the photograph of the original owner.”
The foreign liaison said that the number of passports reported stolen from foreigners living around the Khao San Road area has been quite high for years. This applies mostly to passports from EU countries, the liaison said, adding that tourists sometimes sell their passports so they can stay longer in Thailand.
“Stolen or bought passports obtained in Thailand – with a corroborating counterfeit ID, like a driving license – make it possible to enter an EU country. The holder of the altered passport must make sure they don’t enter the country the passport was issued in because its theft would have been reported to that country’s authorities.
“Anyone who steals a passport in Bangkok can then freely travel through all the other 25 Schengen countries. No visa between these countries is required and it’s not necessary to show a passport while crossing to a different Schengen country, only a form of ID is enough. Again, the EU country where the stolen passport originated must be avoided,” the liaison officer said.
“It has been uncovered that citizens of one Persian Gulf country have been buying stolen passports, mainly of EU countries, in order to enter them easily. They have been also acquiring supporting documents. The people actually travelling on stolen travel documents normally don’t buy them themselves. They have someone else do it for them – in Bangkok.”
The officer said that some fake documents available on Khao San Road, such as driving licenses of some countries, aren’t replicates at all but a kind of “science fiction design” that doesn’t exist. However, authorities in some countries don’t have a clue what the originals look like, the liaison officer claimed.
Crackdown needed, says security expert
STEVE Vickers is the CEO of Steve Vickers and Associates (www.stevevickersassociates.com), a security consulting company specializing in risk mitigation and corporate intelligence which operates across Asia. He is also a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau and has extensive experience in investigating counterfeit currencies, money laundering and terrorist financing, and is an acknowledged authority in dealing with kidnappings.
Mr Vickers, who is a regular contributor to CNN, Bloomberg TV and CNBC, gave his opinions about the fake ID cards being sold on Khao San Road in Bangkok.
“I must say that I am quite surprised at the blatant manner in which these fake documents are sold on the streets,” said Mr Vickers, who believes the practice contributes to false applications for jobs [through counterfeit academic qualifications], bank loans, entry to restricted areas and other illegal activities.
“I see many instances of identical documents being used in fraudulent bank loan applications or in attempts to obtain credit through false pretences or in support of other fraudulent activity.
“The airline staff identification cards and US driving licenses which I saw are scarier, however. This is because in many US states all you need to buy a firearm is a current driving license. They may do a quick check, but in practice they often don’t, and the holder of the fake card walks away with a semi-automatic firearm in his hands.
“Likewise, fake airline passes used in a third-world environment may facilitate access to restricted areas.
“There can be no legitimate reason for these documents other than to support fraudulent activities or worse. While I fully understand that under Thai law it is difficult to take action without a complainant under trademark laws, the reality is that these documents are tools to be used by criminals in nefarious schemes and a crackdown is required. The situation has reached such proportions that many universities and colleges around the world are adopting barcodes and other technologies to uniquely identify their certificates.
“The good news is that, from what I have seen, none of these documents would actually pass an electronic examination at an immigration point or a bank. However, they are more than sufficient to support bogus schemes.
“It would be helpful if the Thai government would put a stop to such operations to avoid reputational damage as well as economic and actual physical damage,” Mr Vickers concluded.