People smugglers are having to buy or steal real Hong Kong passports because enhanced security features mean it is getting too hard to forge them, immigration officials say.
This is forcing illegal immigrants to change their appearances to match the photos on the Hong Kong passports they buy from criminal syndicates.
'The syndicates need to collect passports from people of different ages and appearances so that illegal immigrants can pose as the true holders of the passports,' said Joe Chan Chi-ho, head of the anti-illegals section at the Immigration Department.
Three Hong Kong residents were jailed yesterday for up to three years for illegal transfer of passports. The case involved a mainland syndicate that could still be active, investigators said.
Since electronic passports were introduced in 2007, authorities have issued 2.4 million - embedded with computer chips containing personal data.
Such is the complexity of the security features that criminals have turned to selling real passports to people who either look like the original passport holders or can alter their facial appearance enough to pass as them.
The Immigration Department says it is a popular way to beat security at checkpoints. In the past few years, some 30 such imposters have been detected.
One case made international headlines in 2010: a mainland traveller fitted himself with a silicone mask to pose as an elderly man and beat security checks at Chek Lap Kok airport, only to have his identity discovered on his flight to Canada. A staff member in the airport's ground crew who had verified his travel document and assisted him with boarding the flight was convicted.
The District Court yesterday sentenced a 41-year-old man to three years in jail for buying Hong Kong passports from two men, Tang Kai-cho and Tang Wing-piu, who were jailed for 15 and 10 months respectively. The court heard earlier that Ma Ming, a member of a syndicate, had bought two passports from the pair for about HK$600 each.
Ma then gave the passports to a middleman who is understood to have sold them on the mainland. The middleman received a 200 yuan (HK$244) reward for each passport sold.
Investigators tracked the men based on small newspaper advertisements placed last March. Ma was arrested near Sheung Shui MTR station on May 4 in an undercover operation conducted by the department and the police Organised Crime and Triad Bureau.
He was charged with conspiracy to aid, abet, counsel or procure the transfer of a travel document to another without reasonable excuse, and another similar offence.
Tang Kai-cho, 24, and Tang Wing-piu, 27, were both charged with one count of transferring a travel document to another without reasonable excuse.
The maximum penalty for the crimes was a fine of HK$150,000 and a 14-year jail term.
Since 2004, 22 people have been arrested for illegally transferring passports in Hong Kong, according to Chan. But he admitted that it was unclear how many passports had already been sold on the mainland.
'We don't know how many such transactions there have been,' he said.