Organised gangs of passport thieves are increasingly targeting British holidaymakers as the value of UK travel documents soars on the dark web.
According to the results of a Freedom of Information request submitted to Her Majesty’s Passport Office by UK insurance firm esure, nearly 350,000 British passports were reported as lost or stolen in 2015, a 23% increase on the previous year. As of August this year, some 270,000 had gone missing, suggesting 2015’s figure could be surpassed by the end of December.
Research commissioned by esure found that UK passports are currently selling on dark web marketplaces such as Agora for as much as £2,800. Dark web prices for British travel documents have risen by around 6% since the EU referendum, prompting fears that their value could rocket still further when Prime Minister Theresa May triggers article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in the New Year.
Experts consulted by esure suggest prices could soar as high as £3,300 once the UK actually leaves the EU, which could make Britons travelling abroad an even more attractive target for criminals. The illicit trade in UK passports, already worth as much as £48 million a year, could increase by as much as 20% in the event of a “hard Brexit”, in which Britain elects to leave the single market and halt freedom of movement, the experts warned.
According to esure’s research, the most common place for British passports to be stolen includes bars and restaurants (14%), the beach (14%), and hotel rooms (13%). Around a third (30.6%) of all UK passports that go missing overseas are either lost or stolen in Spain.
“The British passport is one of the most highly sought-after travel documents on the black market, and with Brexit set to make the UK harder to reach, this is likely to increase,” said Nikki Sellers, Head Of Travel at esure. “It is important to always be extra vigilant when abroad and to make sure you have a copy or photograph of your passport somewhere safe.”
Only last month, an investigation conducted by the University of East London revealed how easy it is to get hold of forged and stolen documents on the dark web, a hidden corner of the internet that can only be accessed via special software such as the Tor browser. Researchers warned that the easy availability of such documents could present an opportunity for jihadi terrorists from groups such as Daesh who might be able to use them to slip into the UK to commit atrocities.
For its part, the UK government launched a campaign in August to warn British travellers about the threat posed by passport thieves. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s #PassportAware initiative consisted of a series of short films which highlighted how passport hustlers operate, and provided advice on how UK nationals could keep their documents safe.