Malaysia airlines Flight MH370: There are some slightly less nefarious reasons for flying on a stolen passport

Those who used them may simply have been illegal economic migrants to Europe

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Identity misrepresentation is rife among air travellers – yet often the motive is simply to save cash by otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Suppose Traveller A has booked a Gatwick-Glasgow flight weeks ahead for £40, but can no longer fly. Traveller B needs to make the same trip at short notice and faces a far higher fare. They may make a deal, at the expense of the airline.

In the 20th century, as long as they were approximately the same gender, B would simply masquerade as A. Today, it’s only slightly more complicated.

For many flights within the UK, airline staff do not insist on ID. Even when they do, flimsy proof such as a railcard may suffice – as long as the name corresponds to the booking and the photo looks like you. Now, you could today buy a “Two Together” Railcard bearing the names Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel but the pictures of you and a friend, and use it as ID for a domestic flight booked in the name of the Russian President and/or  German Chancellor. So the passenger in the next seat may not be the person named on the ticket.

Rules for international travel are tighter, making identity theft more the preserve of organised crime intent on serious mischief. Stolen passports are at the heart of ID fraud, with voracious demand from drug-traffickers and people-smugglers matched by a reliable supply from petty criminals who rob tourists and business travellers. Criminal craftsmen are adept at replacing photographs beneath the laminate on the personal details page – which is why increased security measures now include a second, embedded, image.

As the MH370 tragedy has shown, intelligence on fake identities is not routinely shared internationally. When I renewed my passport some years ago, the document was “lost” in the post. It later turned up in the possession of an American villain. Ever since, when I arrive at US Immigration I am hauled off to “Secondary” for hours of further investigation. But other countries are uninterested in my apparently nefarious past.

The pair who departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on Saturday using stolen passports took advantage of the lack of international co-operation on ID fraud. But that doesn’t mean they were to blame for downing the plane. They may simply have been illegal economic migrants to Europe, flying to Amsterdam via China simply to get a cheap fare – and therefore not-quite-innocent victims.

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