Passport Fraud: Overview of Criminal & Immigration Laws

Overview of the laws governing passport fraud, why and how it's committed, and what the consequences may be.

Passport fraud is a federal crime and not one taken lightly by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of State’s law enforcement arm, Diplomatic Security (DS) Service, uses special agents who coordinate with other federal and international law enforcement agencies in more than 160 countries around the world to investigate passport and visa fraud.

This article will first provide some background on the crime of passport fraud, and then address the penalties under U.S. law.

Often a First Step Toward Identity Fraud

A U.S. passport is regarded as among the most valuable travel and identity documents in the world. It allows citizens free passage in and out of the U.S. as well as into other countries around the world, which makes procuring a U.S. passport extremely desirable to terrorists and other criminals. According to the DS, obtaining a U.S. passport fraudulently is almost always a crime committed to facilitate another crime, such as illegal immigration, contraband smuggling, economic crimes, and terrorism.

Who Typically Commits Passport Fraud?

Someone who commits passport fraud is, not surprisingly, most often doing so to achieve some kind of benefit that he or she would not otherwise be accorded, or to travel and live someplace without revealing a true identity. According to the Department of State, the most typical passport fraud crimes are committed by:

  • people attempting to illegally obtain U.S. citizenship or some other legal U.S. status
  • people wishing to hide or change their identity
  • fugitives
  • terrorists
  • people committing financial fraud
  • people committing other crimes, such as drug trafficking and alien smuggling.

How Is Passport Fraud Usually Committed?

Passport fraud is often committed or attempted by replacing the original photo on an existing passport, particularly with older passports. This is most commonly committed by a person residing abroad. Other ways include the altering of birth certificates and other documents, using the identity of a person who has died, and circumventing the requirement of both parents’ signature for minors under 16 years old.

Penalties for Conviction

For a basic, first offense of passport fraud, such as lying on a passport application, you can be fined $250,000 and sentenced to up to ten years in prison. If the fraud involves trafficking in narcotics, the penalty increases to up to 15 years in prison. If international terrorism is involved, the penalty is up to 20 years. (Of course, if caught engaging in any of these activities, the person also faces additional charges and penalties.)

Millions of stolen passports are fraudulently used by terrorists and other dangerous criminals at any given time and the problem is considered the single largest threat to U.S. national security. Therefore, if you’ve committed passport fraud for any reason, you can expect that the government will assume you are engaging, or intend to engage, in serious criminal activity, and that you are a threat to the United States. It's likely that you will be charged with a federal crime and prosecuted. Get an attorney's help right away.

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