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3000 blank passports and visas stolen in England

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A security van carrying blank visas and passports was hijacked near Manchester in north England at 6:40 a.m. Monday, 28 July 2008. At least 3,000 blank passports and visa stickers in 24 brown cardboard boxes - intended for distribution to embassies and consulates abroad - were stolen.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which was responsible for the delivery, was entrusted to ship them abroad. An FCO spokesman said: "Although we have never used armoured vehicles, which are much less flexible and more expensive than the security vans we currently use, we have used non-armoured security vans for 15 years without incident."

The blank visa stickers - also called "vignettes" - and blank passports were destined for British embassies overseas for distribution to British nationals in other countries, the Foreign Office said.

The Foreign Office spokesman acknowledged the theft was a serious breach and said an immediate review had been ordered.

The van was en route with parcels from the premises of 3M Security and Printing Systems, the production site in Oldham outside Manchester, to the Royal Air Force base at Northolt northwest of London. The driver stopped briefly to purchase a paper, and the van was then hijacked - with the passenger - and driven to a nearby location.

The passenger was threatened but unharmed, and the 24 boxes with the documents were removed.

Greater Manchester Police investigating

A spokeswoman said that the incident is being investigated by the Greater Manchester Police. She said that the Home Office and Identity and Passport Service (IPS) have taken "preventative action" to guard against forgeries.

Detective Chief Inspector Bill McGreavy said: "The offenders have not taken all the items from the van."

He estimated the actual value of the passports to be about 2.5 million GBP, adding that he had "no significant information" to suggest it was a "targeted theft."

Inspector McGreavy said police did not believe weapons had been used. "The police are trying to put together the movements of that van and movements of staff from leaving the depot. We do want to discover what the normal routine was with regard to this pick-up and delivery."

He reassured the public that the passports contain microchips which can be encrypted, "so they're very secure."

On Monday, Greater Manchester police said that they believed two men were involved. The theft was executed so rapidly that the police raised the possibility that the theives knew what they were after.

Detectives are looking for "at least" two suspects, and the van is being forensically examined for all possible information.

e-passports "unusable" ?

An Identity and Passport Service spokesman said in a statement: "Our hi-tech security features mean that these passports are unusable." Sensitive documents like these are "usually" transported in armored, secure vehicles, he added.

A spokeswoman for 3M Security Printing & Systems confirmed that no personal details were on any of the blank documents.

BBC Radio 5 Live reported that the passports involved were of the new electronic type - often referred to as "e-passports." They are embedded with small memory chips that contain electronic copies of the data actually printed on the documents themselves. The IPS said the documents' embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that store personal data and biometric data - such as photographs and fingerprints - had not yet been activated, making them "useless as travel documents."

However the BBC quoted fraud experts as saying the passports can still be used as identification in countries that do not use the chip technology in document screening.

Fraud potential

The documents can be used for identity fraud and have an estimated street value of about 2.5 million pounds. They can be used to set up bank accounts, find work, or for travel in countries where security is less rigorous than in most westernized nations.

Natalie Brennan, Detective Constable of Oldham CID, said "Although these passports were blank, they could be worth a lot of money to criminals."

An industry expert said the passports would not be of much use as travel documents, but did warn of the potential to be used to create a new identity. Forgers could also use them as proof of identity for banking and other activities.

"From that one document you could literally create your own identity as a foreign national who last month got a British passport," said Steve Beecroft, a specialist in so-called "smart technology." The stolen documents could be sold to people, such as asylum seekers, who want to pass themselves off as British citizens, he said.

Tom Craig, a former Scotland Yard Fraud officer, said it is possible to copy 'biographical information' to chips embedded in the passports. "Bearing in mind that these passports can be used anywhere in the world, if they come to the UK they are more likely to be picked up because the serial numbers will be recorded."

"The thing is with the money. The end user, the end criminal - the guy who is going to get caught - is paying out a lot of money. And you've got desperate people all over the world trying to get British passports." He estimated that the passports would be worth around £1,700 each.

Mr. Craig, who currently runs a private ID security company, noted that information can be written onto blank chips. The passports can then be used for activities such as opening a bank account or obtaining employment.

Political reaction

The deputy leader of the governing Labour Party, Harriet Harman, said "I think that this is a robbery, a serious crime, and it will be investigated. But, I don't think that it necessarily shows a sloppy attitude. I think it's a crime, which is a serious one, and will be looked into and, we hope obviously, that the police will be able to apprehend the offenders."

Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said the theft demonstrates how 'organized criminals' will target identity documents. "This illustrates how the Government is wrong to rely on biometric technology to keep us safe, which experts have shown can be easily cloned."

Keith Vaz, a Labour MP and chairman of the influential Commons Home Affairs Committee, wants an inquiry into UK passport security. He said he is writing to the Home Secretary to order an inquiry, fearful the passports could be used by illegal immigrants.

"I find it extraordinary that the theft of so many passports was even possible."

"This government has put the eradication of illegal immigration at the top of the political agenda. It is therefore completely unacceptable that such sensitive documents are transported in a way that puts them at risk of theft."