UK police engage print industry to stop fake IDs

The authorities are trying to stop fake ID factories by tightening supplies of specialist equipment

U.K. police are trying to get wider participation from printer manufacturers and makers of specialist equipment in a voluntary program designed to cut off criminals from the tools they need to make fraudulent passports and ID cards.

The program asks distributors and resellers to profile their customers and tell police if they suspect equipment such as thermal card printers are being ordered under suspicious conditions, said Nick Downing, detective chief inspector with the Economic and Specialist Crime Unit of the Metropolitan police.

So far, 90 entities have agreed to abide by the police code of conduct, which includes not selling equipment if there are doubts as to how it will be used. Those 90 represent about 75 percent of the total industry, Downing said.

But the remaining 25 percent consists of up to 10,000 small businesses, distributors and resellers, and the goal is to get those organizations to agree to the code of conduct, Downing said.

"The identity market is massive in the U.K.," Downing said. "False identities undermine the safety of the U.K."

Officials suggest that if more companies do not participate, the police would recommend that regulations be introduced in order to get higher compliance. Police are hoping for voluntary participation, said Nigel Mawer, detective chief superintendent for the Specialist Crime Directorate.

The program is part of Genesius, a 2-year-old operation that has disrupted 14 criminal networks involved in generating fake identification. Companies participating have forwarded at least 400 tips to police about possible criminal activity.

There are no regulations around owning special printing equipment, but it is illegal to possess some items with the intent to produce false identity documents. The tools of the trade include embossing devices, hot-foil stamping machines, special types of paper and hologram machinery. Thermal card printers, which can be used to make ID cards, retail for as little as £700 ($US1,120), Downing said.

Police have recorded some notable successes. A former employee of Identisys, a maker of embossing and laser engraving equipment in Northampton, England, was caught working with up to 10 different fake ID card operations. Nicholas York was sentenced to four years in prison in November 2007.

Identisys is one of many companies participating in the reporting program, which also encourages companies to put a Metropolitan Police logo on their Web sites advising of their active cooperation with police. Companies that display the logo have seen fewer suspicious attempts at buying equipment, Downing said.

Warning signs for suspicious purchases include would-be buyers trying to buy equipment with cash, trying to collect the equipment on-site rather than having it shipped to a business, not needing an invoice and having a different delivery address than billing address. Police would also like manufacturers to hang on to records to whom equipment was sold.

The fake identity card and passport industry is robust, with a good-quality passport fetching £1,000 or more. Today's passports have a host of security features, but many times the presence of those features -- such as an embedded microchip with the person's biometric details -- can only be detected using certain equipment.

Border patrol may catch a fake passport, but a financial institution or police officer in the street is unlikely to since they don't have the equipment or right training, Downing said.

Officials showed embossing devices, fake U.K. national insurance cards and fake passports during a presentation for press and industry on Tuesday. Many of the bogus passports looked fine to the untrained eye, as well as to police. When asked what was wrong with a Portuguese passport, one officer said, "I couldn't tell you."

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Jeremy Kirk

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