LONDON – Around 3,000 blank British passports due to be sent to embassies around the world have been stolen from a van that was hijacked near Manchester, England, in what the government admits was a major security breach.
The Foreign Office admitted that 24 parcels containing blank passports and vignettes - the stickers used for visa stamps - were taken from a vehicle that was traveling from the printers yesterday.
Security experts have suggested that the cargo, which has a street value of almost $10 million was probably targeted deliberately.
The van was hijacked when one of two delivery men got out of the vehicle to buy chocolate and a newspaper. While he was gone, a colleague in the vehicle was threatened and assaulted before the van was driven, with the second delivery man still inside, to a quiet street nearby.
The packages of secure documents were then taken from the van.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman admitted it was a serious breach of security and that the Home Office and Identity and Passport Service had taken “preventative action” to guard against the stolen passports being forged and used to commit fraud.
The passports involved were the new electronic variety, which contain a chip replicating the data printed on the document itself.
An IPS spokesman said: “Our hi-tech security features mean that these passports are unusable.”
Security industry specialists, however, suggest that the documents could be forged and used to commit crime even though the information on the chip would not match the rest of the forged document.
Tom Craig, a former Scotland Yard fraud officer who now runs ID security company Amarlis, said they can be worth up to $3,400 each.
“That is because they can be used by putting in biographical information of your own, not necessarily getting the chip information right, and then you can use them to open up bank accounts or actually get employment,” he told the BBC.
Industry specialist Steve Beecroft agreed that the passports could not be used to move between countries but forgers could print the passports for use as proof of identity for banks in the UK.
“From that one document you could literally create your own identity as a foreign national who last month got a British passport,” he said.
Beecroft said his “gut feeling” was that the passports were stolen deliberately. “Quite clearly the government thinks there’s an element of value to these documents—otherwise they would just stick them in a diplomatic bag and put them on the next flight,” he said.
Such sensitive documents are usually transported in armored vehicles, he added.
The incident is the latest where government departments or agencies either lost personal data or had it stolen.
Last month, an Independent Police Complaints Commission report condemned the "woefully inadequate system" being used by staff which brought about the loss of 25 million child benefit records, complete with sensitive personal information, late last year.
In addition, nine NHS trusts last December admitted they had lost confidential patients’ information while - in the same month—it was disclosed that the personal details of three million UK learner drivers had been lost by the agency in charge of storing them in the American state of Iowa.
Keith Vaz, Labour part member and chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said today: “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.”
Vaz went on: “I will be writing to the Home Secretary today to ask for a full-scale, urgent inquiry into passport security in the UK.
“Clearly there needs to be better coordination between the Foreign Office and the Home Office.”