VISA and Passport Fraud: An Overview

February 1, 2007

The 9/11 Commission Report

"For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons. Terrorists must travel clandestinely to meet, train, plan, case targets, and gain access to attack. Because they must pass through regulated channels-presenting themselves to border security officials-or attempt to circumvent inspection points, international travel poses great danger to terrorists. In their travels, terrorists use evasive methods, such as altered and counterfeit visas and passports, surreptitious travel methods and routes, liaisons with corrupt government officials, human smuggling networks, supportive travel agencies, and immigration and identity fraud."

The borders of the United States are at risk every day from individuals who attempt to secure valid U.S. visas or passports by illegal means. The Department's consular officers are challenged constantly in their efforts to identify potential irregularities in visa applications, false documents, and a host of other deceptions that individuals employ to obtain a U.S. visa by fraudulent means. The difficulty of this mission is compounded by the sheer number of valid applications and by the location of U.S. consular facilities overseas. In many locations, applicants have unlimited access to fraudulent documents and/or corrupt officials who illegally provide apparently legitimate travel documents. Many of these applicants will spend their life savings to obtain fraudulent travel documents or the services of smuggling networks even if they are given no guarantee of success. The U.S. passport is in even greater demand. The most valuable travel document in the world, it establishes U.S. citizenship and allows its bearer unlimited access to the United States and many other countries.

Counterfeiting of visas and passports is at the core of a wide range of threats posed by terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. DS's partnership with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) is essential for DS to investigate and enforce violations of visa and passport criminal statutes in both the United States and overseas. DS criminal investigations have uncovered a wide range of illicit travel facilitation crimes, including:

  • Terrorists who use counterfeit, criminally acquired, or altered travel documents;
  • Narcotics traffickers and others who attempt to acquire U.S. passports under false names to avoid detection by law enforcement;
  • Fugitives from justice who use aliases to obtain U.S. passports;
  • Individuals and groups that supply travel and supporting documents to criminals, human smuggling and trafficking organizations, and identity theft and financial fraud rings;
  • Visa applicants who use fraud in an attempt to visit, work, or reside illegally in the United States.

The 9/11 terrorists succeeded in carrying out their attacks through the use of fraudulently obtained, but genuine, U.S. travel documents. Throughout the 1990s, members of al-Qaeda learned to exploit weaknesses in the immigration, passport, visa, and entry systems of the United States. They successfully instituted a travel facilitation operation in Afghanistan through the use of travel agents, document forgers, and corrupt government officials. The 19 hijackers employed a variety of methods to conceal their identities, including the use of 364 aliases, fraudulent entry-exit stamps, and altered passports. Through these fraudulent methods, the 9/11 terrorists obtained legitimate passports and tourist visas, entered the United States, and perpetrated the largest terrorist attack in our nation's history.*

(*Source: 9/11 and Terrorist Travel. Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States).


Table of Contents

Mission Statement | Introductory Letter From Assistant Secretary Griffin | The Bureau of Diplomatic Security: A Brief History | Visa and Passport Fraud: An Overview | Introduction | Strategic Goal 1 | Strategic Goal 2 | Strategic Goal 3 | Conclusion | Appendix: Operation Triple X