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Organized Crime

Passport theft in Canada increasing dramatically

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

TORONTO -- After a dramatic spike in reports of lost and stolen passports over the past two years, Passport Canada is giving additional scrutiny to passport applications across the country and warning travellers to protect their travel documents.

In 2007, 37,650 passports were reported lost or stolen, compared to 24,792 in 2005. The numbers, obtained by The Canadian Press, were recently circulated in a memo warning staff to double-check applications for new passports when the old document is reported missing.

"Lost and stolen passports are extremely valuable to criminal organizations to facilitate and perpetrate illegal/clandestine operations such as human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering and terrorism,'' said the memo.

In February 2008, Passport Canada began cross-checking applicants' names with the Canadian Police Information Centre, which links law enforcement organizations across the country.

"In taking a report of loss or theft, take an extra second to review the form to detect inconsistencies,'' warned the memo.

The rise in thefts and losses coincides with a jump in the number of passports processed annually.

"During 2005-06, Passport Canada processed an unprecedented three million passports,'' said a recent auditor general's report.

"In comparison, it processed about 2.7 million passports in 2004-05 and 1.7 million in 2001-02.''

But security experts warned Wednesday that increased security features and better communication between government departments may not be enough to stay ahead of organized criminal groups, who make big money on stolen passports.

Some countries fare worse than others.

For example, in Spain, reported thefts have doubled since 2003, meaning more Canadian passports go missing in that country than anywhere else in the world, according to Andre Lemay, a spokesman from Passport Canada.

"That's not surprising,'' said Benjamin Perrin, an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in international law and human trafficking.

Spain has been identified as a major entry point for illegal immigration from Africa and South America.

"They need to be able to move and move with impunity,'' he said of many criminals, who often can't cross borders under their own names.

"Plugging the hole in Spain and finding the reasons for it should be a priority for the Canadian government,'' said Perrin.

Perrin added that an auditor general's report in 2005 found it took much too long -- 35 days -- for law enforcement officials to share information about stolen passports, meaning a possible month-long free pass for criminals looking to travel between borders.

Along with drug trafficking, Perrin added that dealing in stolen and faked passports is now a major source of revenue for criminal groups.

Chris Mathers, a security expert and former RCMP agent, agreed.

"People will buy them off you, and Canadian passports are of great value,'' he said, adding that even old or cancelled passports can be resold.

"If you've got a legitimate passport, it's a lot easier task to phoney up one, because you've got the actual materials,'' he said.

"They're still a commodity that criminals will pay quite a bit for.''

While the government has only recently issued warnings about thefts in Spain, the travel industry has long been aware of the problem, said Association of Canadian Travel Agencies president Christiane Theberge.

Theberge said last year, 182,000 Canadians travelled to Spain, making it the 11th most popular destination for Canadian travellers.

Lemay said 496 Canadian passports were stolen in Spain last year, compared to 4,746 stolen worldwide.

Theberge said ACTA often issues reminders to ensure travellers know the threat in Spain and other countries.

"Just be very cautious, be sure your passport is secure,'' she said.

 

The Canadian Press

Bernier affair a security issue: experts

Thursday, May 08, 2008

OTTAWA - Some security experts are taking issue with the Conservative government's characterization of the Maxime Bernier affair as a private matter, saying questionable personal links could leave the minister - and Canadian interests - vulnerable.

Opposition MPs pilloried the Tories on Thursday over revelations the foreign affairs minister's ex-girlfriend, Julie Couillard, consorted with at least two outlaw bikers as recently as the late 1990s.

The Conservatives repeatedly brushed aside opposition cries that Bernier had placed national security at risk by allowing a woman with apparently unsavoury ties to enter his orbit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bernier and other top Tories insisted it's nobody's business.

But Chris Mathers, a security consultant who spent years as an undercover RCMP officer, said Bernier's close associates must be closely scrutinized.

"It's a security issue, for sure. . . It's not a private thing when you associate with someone who has criminal associates, and you're a person in authority.

"The reason that's bad is that there could be some type of extortion of the woman, of the minister himself - there's all sorts of potential things that could happen."

Mathers says ties to the murky domain of organized crime, however tenuous, could prove problematic: "It's a world where rumour and innuendo rule."

Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto historian and expert in security and intelligence, also rejected the government line.

"It's a serious matter because cabinet ministers are privy to the most sensitive information available to the government of Canada," he said.

"And we expect them to be very responsible in terms of, first of all, how they handle that kind of information. They're in the same kind of position any senior official with access to highly classified material would be."

Wark pointed out that romantic entanglements with security implications - most notably the Gerda Munsinger affair - have previously ensnared Canadian politicians.

Conservative Pierre Sevigny, one of John Diefenbaker's ministers, resigned from cabinet in 1963 following an affair with Munsinger, a prostitute and Soviet spy.

In 1985, Tory defence minister Robert Coates stepped down after word of his visit to a strip bar in West Germany.

"It's something that we do have some history with," Wark said. "And there are legitimate reasons to be concerned whenever a cabinet minister finds himself in the orbit of people who may have organized crime connections."

However, another expert said it's important not to tar Bernier with guilt by association.

Wade Deisman, a criminologist and director of the University of Ottawa's national security project, said much of what's been said and written about Couillard is based on hearsay.

"She has never been convicted of a criminal offence. All that's been said about her is that she associated with criminals at some point, or people who were involved in organized crime."

Jim Bronskill

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Returning stolen goods to owners a tough task

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Elise Stolte, The Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - Police will face a real challenge trying to find the owners of $280,000 worth of recovered stolen goods, says money- laundering expert Chris Mathers.

"They'll be lucky to identify 10 per cent of it," he said.

Without identifying who the property belongs to,

On Feb. 23, Edmonton police found roughly 400 stolen items including power tools, building supplies and home electronics after a tip about a stolen truck led them to a north-end resi-dence.

Police announced charges Tuesday, but only 37 out of the 400 items have been returned to the owners, said acting detective James Vanderland.

Anyone who thinks their belongings might be in the find can go to the north division police station and look through a binder of photographs.

While the value of the find is impressive, most finds of this size don't result in as many charges, said Mathers.

"It's a good bust," he said. "But it's really difficult to identify these things."

The Toronto-based crime expert worked as an undercover RCMP officer for 20 years, then published a book on money laundering.

He now gives workshops on theft prevention and money laundering across the country.

From the recent find, the items marked with company names or with serial numbers were registered with police as stolen, and have already been returned to their owners, Vanderland said. The rest are stored in a police warehouse.

One local construction company marked all its equipment with blue and orange paint. Police called the owner when they found his name and number written on one item. He went through the photographs and identified nine items from the blue and orange marks.

Other companies haven't made similar efforts, Vanderland said. Often if the theft is less than their $10,000 insurance deductible, they don't report the theft to the police, passing the cost off instead to the end consumer. One oil refinery east of the city has a $100,000 deductible.

"We need companies to call us," Vanderland said. "You need to document it. You need to help us out, too."

Most of the stolen goods were found in a home near 118th Avenue and 58th Street. Police got a tip about a stolen truck and sent several plainclothes officers who watched three people load the truck with power tools stored in the garage.

Officers pulled over the truck, then searched the house and found more than 300 power tools, high-end electronics and bicycles in the house, on three flat-deck trailers in the yard and in the garage.

They found 65 more items, mainly building supplies and power tools, in a storage unit across the city.

Police arrested a 43-year-old man driving the stolen truck, a 29-year-old woman living in the rented house, and issued a warrant for a 34-year-old man who also lives at the house. They've been charged with 20 counts of possession of stolen property among them.

The couple had only been renting the house for a month, Vanderland said. The house seemed to be a collection point, where stolen goods would be bought for cents on the dollar and resold.

"I think it's all small-time guys," he said. "It's the same group, but how organized they are, I don't know."

estolte@thejournal.canwest.com

police can't lay charges.