Snakeheads cheat dozens out of their SAR passports

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am

Nearly 70 Hong Kong SAR passports have been reported lost in recent months after people unwittingly handed them to suspected 'snakeheads', or human smugglers, according to an Immigration Department investigation.

The passports were handed over by people who had been persuaded that bargain travel packages or overseas business trips would be arranged for them.

Seven people reported the loss of their passports early this month, prompting the investigation, which found that 60 more passports were reported lost in similar situations recently.

'We believe that these reported losses of SAR passports are related to human-smuggling and illegal forgery activities,' Chan Ping-fai, assistant principal immigration officer with the investigation subdivision, said yesterday. People were asked by friends to provide a passport to strangers who said they could help arrange bargain travel packages and overseas business trips to negotiate lucrative trade deals.

The victims assumed the passports would be returned after the trips were arranged, but the strangers disappeared.

'Some even gave their Hong Kong identity cards to the strangers, and later the stranger could not be contacted,' Chan said.

Investigations revealed that passport holders were approached on the internet, an unusual avenue for syndicates to use because they usually placed newspaper advertisements seeking potential victims.

Immigration officers are investigating whether any of the passport holders intended to relinquish their passport for monetary gain.

The seven residents who lost their passports this month are all men, aged between 44 and 55. Three of them lost a new electronic passport.

'As the new HKSAR electronic passport is difficult to forge, we suspect syndicate members would like to collect a batch of them so they have more of a chance at getting one whose picture is similar to that of their clients,' Chan said.

The advance security features in the electronic passports, introduced in February 2007, make it difficult for human smuggling syndicates to change the picture or information on the data page.

A resident's personal particulars and photo are etched into the data page with laser engraving technology. The data page is also made of polycarbonate, a material which cannot be tampered with, and once the engraving of information is done it is irreversible.

The department had not ruled out the possibility that the syndicate collected older versions of the HKSAR passport as well, to make forgeries.

The department yesterday appealed to people to keep their travel documents in a safe place and not to hand them over to anyone.

It said it was co-operating with overseas law enforcement agencies on the case, including providing the passport numbers and expiry dates of the 67 missing passports.

People often pay human smugglers about 300,000 in yuan or Hong Kong dollars for a passport on the black market.

The department said the lost passports were not linked to an October case in which a young mainlander used a mask to disguise himself as an elderly Caucasian male and boarded a flight to Canada.

'Information and statistics does not show the situation [related to human smuggling] becoming very serious at this stage,' Chan said.

There had been an 8 per cent increase in the number of forged travel documents being detected, from 1,207 in 2009 to 1,299 last year.

Of the 747 people arrested using forged passports in Hong Kong, 58 per cent were mainlanders.