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Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Japanese passports big ticket for forgers, scam artists


Staff writer

On the final night of their spring vacation in Bangkok, Nao Yamamoto, 25, and a friend almost had their passports stolen at their hotel.

A man claiming to be a receptionist called their room and asked for their passport numbers, saying it was necessary for their checkout the next morning.

About 10 minutes later, another "hotel employee" came to their door and claimed the hotel now needed to borrow their passports to make copies. "We are sorry about the inconvenience," the man said.

Yamamoto said she might have handed him the passports if her friend hadn't suspected something was wrong and shut the door on him. "I was really shocked when my friend came back from the front desk, where she went to check what was going on, and told me the whole thing was a scam," she said. "I mean, who would think something like that would happen in a nice hotel?"

Yamamoto was lucky. According to the Passport Division of the Foreign Ministry, about 10,000 Japanese either lost or had their passport stolen while traveling overseas last year.

In many cases, travelers lose their passports when the bags containing them are stolen. But cases similar to Yamamoto's, where passport holders are deceived by thieves, are increasing.

In an example cited by the ministry, a Japanese man went for a drink with a local resident who befriended him only to wake up the next morning minus his passport and wallet. His drink had been spiked.

In another case, a package tour conductor who was in charge of all of his customers' passports, a frequent practice, reported them all stolen.

The Passport Division has been asking the tour industry to do away with the practice. But many agents do it because it is easier for group check-ins at airport counters and hotels, and because some customers ask the tour conductors to look after their passports, said an official of the division who declined to be named. "And such stolen passports are most likely later forged and used by people in Asia who wish to illegally enter Japan, Europe or the United States," the official said.

People involved in such passport fraud often seek to secure work or otherwise make money at those destinations, and Japanese passports are apparently one very convenient ticket to ride.

Reasons behind the popularity of Japanese passports in the black market lie in their status.

Currently, Japanese passport holders are able to visit over 50 countries without visas for sightseeing or short trips. Holders can travel to Japan and many other destinations via Japan without having to show other forms of identification.

Japan is party to the Reciprocal Visa Exemption Arrangement with 57 countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico and several nations in Europe, thus saving travelers to and from those countries the trouble of applying for visas. "This system is a major merit for those who wish to enter these countries and stay illegally,"the Foreign Ministry official said.

Another reason why Japanese passports are coveted by others in Asia is because Asians share similar physical traits and they believe they can pass themselves off as Japanese, he added.

According to a recent report by the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau, 11,546 people were denied entry at the time of their arrival to Japan in 1998, including 1,484 found to be in possession of forged passports and visas.

Of the 1,484, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Thais topped the list of those rejected. For many Asians, working conditions in Japan, despite its recession, are still more attractive than in their homelands.

The Immigration Bureau said it does not have detailed data on the origins of the forged passports but admits they come from increasingly diverse sources.

"Over the past few years, we've detected an increasing number of forged European passports," said Masayuki Watanabe, head of the Document Identification Center at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau's Narita Airport District Immigration Office.

Many holders of forged European passports are from China and Iran and are trying to take advantage of the visa-free arrangements between Europe and Japan, he said.

Detecting forged passports can be easy in cases where the users merely change pictures or simply use unchanged originals. But due to advances in photocopying technology and personal computer software, forgery methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated, according to Watanabe.

More and more forged passports are so elaborately crafted that they go undetected by standard infrared equipment.

"We're making great efforts to detect forged passports, but it's really a vicious circle (of technological innovation by both forgers and authorities)," Watanabe said.

And passport forgery and illegal use are apparently growing more systematic.

At Narita airport's immigration control, violators have been found carrying passports entirely forged, instead of authentic ones with changed photos and data.

"It is hard to believe that someone would go to all that trouble to produce just one fake passport," Watanabe said. "We assume there are organizations doing business producing forged passports."

Perhaps the existence of such organizations explains why an outsider knew Yamamoto and her friend's names, hotel room number and itinerary.

One contributing factor in the illegal passport trade may be a lack of awareness among Japanese toward the importance of such identification.

According to the Foreign Ministry official, about 26,000 passports were reported lost within Japan last year, more than twice the number lost overseas. Many more cases are believed to go unreported.

"In most cases, people apparently lose their passports inside their homes when they move, for example," he said. "It's really hard to believe, but this suggests Japanese people do not take their passports seriously."

Said Watanabe at Narita airport: "I've seen many cases where people put print-club stickers on their passports. Some even used one of the pages to have autographs from celebrities they've bumped into.

"It's really depressing when we warn these people about what they did, because they don't seem to think of it as a big deal," he said.

"With increasing numbers of Japanese going overseas, we really want people to realize and understand that passports are the only official identification that can prove their status outside Japan," the ministry official said. "If people took more care of their passports, they would not be taken away so easily."



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