How Dubai airport staff detect fake passports 'within seconds'

During the first quarter of 2024, passport control officers used e-readers to catch 366 passengers with fake travel ID

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With hundreds of thousands of passengers flying in and out of one of the world's busiest airports, Dubai passport control officers are armed with the digital know-how and cutting-edge technology to identify those using forged passports within seconds.

Every counter at the Dubai International Airports' immigration zone has an e-passport reader, called Retro Check, that allows officers from the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA) to carry out a quick check if they suspect foul play.

The scanners first verify security features on the passport, including watermarks, microprinting and coloured fibres.

It is then analysed by one of 30 experts at the Document Examination Centre at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 1, which is referred to as a “firewall” against fraudsters using fake travel documents.

During the first quarter of the year, Dubai officials caught 366 passengers using fake passports, a slight increase from 355 cases reported during the same period in last year.

A total of 443 cases have been referred to Dubai Public Prosecution for further action, Aqil Ahmad Al Najjar, consultant at GDRFA's Document Examination Centre, told The National.

These stats are only for departures, Mr Al Najjar said. Those caught attempting to enter the country on fake documents are sent back to face legal action in the country from which they flew, he added.

"The number of fake passport cases recorded at the arrival and transit areas are triple that of those recorded at the departure," he said.

He added that 1,232 fake IDs were identified after 16,127 documents were checked in 2023.

Security features

Every passport has 19 security features that can be checked to determine whether it is genuine or not, Mr Al Najjar said, and the centre uses UV rays to check for "other security features like florescent fibres or ink" that cannot be spotted with the retro checks.

"We also have a huge database of specimens of all passports in the world to crosscheck, if needed," he added.

DXB employs about 1,500 Emirati passport control officers across all terminals to handle entry and exit.

After a fake passport is detected by immigration officers, it is sent to a police station and then referred to the prosecution.

The next step involves the GDRFA's Examination Centre, which sends a report to Dubai Public Prosecution after conducting a detailed check.

Retro checks also take place at the Hatta land border.

Challenges of passport fraud

While spotting fake paper passports is not hard for officers, with the success rate at a high 80 per cent, bogus electronic documents are harder to identify.

Fraudsters often manipulate the electronic chip, making it tough for the officers but that is when "advanced technology" comes in handy, Mr Al Najjar added.

Some travellers also fall victim to gangs that sell passports for large amounts of money.

"There was one incident at the transit area when a family of five paid $10,000 each for European passports," he said.

"They were caught at the transit checkpoint and interrogation revealed that they believed they were genuine documents.

"The family was sent back to the country they flew in from."

However, not all passport investigations involve identity theft.

A traveller was recently stopped at DXB because she had undergone cosmetic surgery to change "her nose, chin and cheek" but "didn’t update her passport photograph".

"The passport was genuine but the photograph was slightly different," Mr Al Najjar said.

"The traveller had to show us evidence of the cosmetic surgery and we also double-checked her details with the consulate."

Updated: June 04, 2024, 7:20 AM