Traveling with the wrong identification, not as sinister, or uncommon, as it might appear

British Passport

At time of writing, there are still no answers in the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370. But earlier this week, much was made about travelers using stolen passports and that being a potential sign of terrorism.

As a travel agent, however, while I haven’t had any direct experience with stolen passports, my initial thought was of people trying to break immigration rules, not to bring down a plane.

Americans are used to being able to fly just about anywhere, with the worst hassle usually being an expensive and/or slow visa process. Most countries allow us to enter rather easily. Citizens of other countries often face far bigger challenges.

Here are a handful of examples. I’ve worked with professors from China and South America unable to transit the U.S. for conferences in other countries. One executive, who is a Mexican citizen, had to cancel a trip to Australia because she couldn’t get an instant visa, which U.S. citizens obtain all the time. And, citizens of India can face all kinds of hurdles to visit Europe.

It is not hard to imagine how people with means are tempted to buy stolen passports, especially if they want to move permanently.

In addition, for many different reasons, people are flying with the wrong identification all the time. And they aren’t all caught, although there are plenty of stories of travelers being hassled over a small name issue. The system isn’t perfect.

A few years ago — after 9-11 — a client called our office about getting a rush replacement passport with an amazing story. His wife had gone ahead to Europe on a business trip and he was joining her two weeks later. When he went to get his passport from the drawer, he discovered HER passport. She had taken his. Flown on it. And, was not stopped.

In another case, I booked a vacation for a couple in their late 60s. The wife was a corporate client. Let’s call her Jane Doe. She told me she was bringing her husband Tommy. I asked if his name was legally Tommy, because TSA needed the name to match. She said,”No, he’s Thomas.”

Later, she called from Hawaii, saying the condo they had was amazing, but there had been a little hiccup on the way out with Tommy’s ticket. It turns out his last name wasn’t Doe but Smith. (Partly my bad, I assumed that because they were older their names matched. I didn’t ask specifically about his last name.)

Called United, where a woman said, “Oh, we can’t change the name on the ticket because he’s flown on half of it, and we won’t board him with the wrong name.” When I pointed out that United had done just that because he didn’t swim to Hawaii, she laughed and got a supervisor to document the ticket for the return.

There are other stories. A long-time woman client just informed me her passport was under “Patricia Anne,” while all her tickets and mileage programs say “Anne,” followed by a middle name not on her passport. And she’s flown that way for years. Another just switched from using initials because United, not TSA, told him he had to change his mileage account to match his legal name. I’m certain most travel agents can add such stories to the list.

Admittedly, it would be nice if airline security had an easily accessible list of stolen passports. In many cases, we also have to assume some people just consider their stolen passport lost, not stolen.

None of this takes away from the pain for those with families and friends on the Malaysian Air flight. However, we are quick to assume terrorism now. As the saying goes, “When you hear hoofprints, think horses, not zebras.”

  • Lisa Simeone

    Thank you for bringing some commons sense to this story, which is being so overblown. People are coming up with all sorts of unfounded theories — the bogeyman of terrorism, of course, being the primary one.

    There’s no evidence yet, of anything, one way or another. The investigation into the Air France crash over the Atlantic took almost two years. Yet people expect this mystery to be solved in a matter of days.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Your points are worth reading but let’s not “sympathize” with law-breakers because of travel hassles, expensive and slow visa processes, and other travel challenges for citizens of many countries.

    It’s international lawbreaking at it’s best and one (if not the major) reason we have huge immigration problems and issues in Europe, USA and most of the western world. Supposedly there are only four countries who check passport numbers against a lost/stolen database (this, after 9-11)??? The system is broken, in fact it was never right to begin with. Nobody cares.

  • janice

    AirlineEmployee, didn’t say I sympathized. But I can understand the reasoning. Same as those who sneak across the border, but these folks have more money. And you are right, we don’t care enough to throw money at the problem.

  • dcta

    You know, I absolutely can believe, and accept that some poor, young Iranian kid was trying to get into Germany on someone else’s passport for no other reason than to visit his mother and perhaps stay there for a long, long while.

    I am very skeptical of this being “terrorism” – no one had claimed responsibility and certainly someone with a “cause” would have done so by now!

  • dcta

    People are so ready to imagine the worst!!!!!

  • dcta

    Who is “sympathizing”?

  • MeanMeosh

    Phony passports aren’t exclusively the province of people trying to break immigration rules or asylum seekers. There are other, admittedly still unlawful, but relatively innocuous reasons for keeping one.

    You mentioned that citizens of India can have trouble visiting Europe, but it has actually been a cottage industry the last 10-15 years or so for Indians who are naturalized U.S. or EU citizens to intentionally fail to surrender their old Indian passport, and travel with both. Why? India makes it excruciatingly difficult for those within foreign passports, even NRIs, from doing even simple tasks like opening a bank account, exchanging currency, or getting a cell phone, let alone more exotic tasks like buying land or a house for a relative. If you still had your old Indian passport, though, nobody would ever check to see if it was really still valid, and you could go about your business while dodging the extra layers of bureaucracy reserved for foreigners.

    This was such a common practice, especially among Indians in Europe, that it rarely drew even a glance from authorities there. Once, in fact, an officer at passport control at LHR mistook my PIO card (basically a long-term visa) for an Indian passport, and made a remark along the lines of “oh, I guess you must be continuing to India on your other passport” without even batting an eye.

  • Drontil

    A commentator on one of the networks stated that people use fraudulent travel documents every day for a variety of reasons.