Holes in the security of New Zealand passports have been exposed after an illegal immigrant paid for two false identities - copies of which ended up in the hands of a master forger linked to a terror plot.
The identities - which contained legitimate details of citizens matched with unknown photographs - were among 19 New Zealand passports found in the Thai apartment of a man accused of creating false passports for those involved in a botched bomb plot to kill Israeli diplomats.
New Zealand passports are highly sought after by criminal networks as the holders generally receive a lower level of scrutiny at borders and the Department of Internal Affairs says the travel document is considered to be one of the most secure in the world.
But the Herald can reveal that "Cristian Dario Alcalde" - real name unknown - paid $8000 to a couple in Northland who agreed to apply for passports in their own names but attached photographs of other people.
Another witness must sign the application and declare the name and photo are the same person.
The Iranian national was living in Auckland courtesy of his Australian passport - also false - and took the two New Zealand passports to Thailand in January 2012.
At this point, Australian authorities cancelled his fake passport and the Thais deported him.
However, copies of the two New Zealand passports obtained by Alcalde were discovered a few months later in the home of an Iranian who allegedly supplied fake documents to terrorists, drug smugglers and human traffickers around the world.
Scanned biodata pages of more than 3000 passports and drivers' licences from 67 countries were found in the Bangkok apartment of Seyed Ramin Miraziz Paknejad, as well as sophisticated computer and counterfeiting equipment.
Scans of 19 New Zealand passports, including the two obtained by Alcalde, were stored on a thumb drive with 14 of those reported lost or stolen in Thailand.
The 46-year-old Paknejad, also known as Parknejed Seyed Ramin, was arrested in Thailand after a botched plot to kill Israeli diplomats in February 2012. He fled the country after being granted bail but was rearrested in Malaysia last year.
Thai authorities have linked the forgery ring to terrorists and drug traffickers and also illegal rings to smuggle people into countries such as New Zealand and Australia.
There is no evidence to suggest the New Zealand passports Alcalde obtained were used in the alleged bomb plot.
But the discovery of the passports in Thailand led to an investigation of illegal immigration, dubbed Operation Echo, by the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand.
One of those targeted was Alcalde, who was able to slip back into New Zealand in August 2012 under yet another false identity - a British passport stolen in Spain.
He paid cash for a flight from Seoul, Korea to Nadi, then to Christchurch before transferring to Auckland, where he tried to arrange for another New Zealand passport for him, as well as his wife and child.
A week later, Alcalde was spotted at a car wash and was arrested. Considered an extreme flight risk, he was initially held in custody but later released in April last year on electronically monitored bail.
He absconded from the Henderson address last August, just a few months before his trial was to start, and was assumed to have fled the country.
However, a few weeks ago he was discovered living in New Plymouth, where he was paying $125 in board a week.
Yesterday, in the Auckland District Court, he pleaded guilty to the six passport offences in order to return to his wife and daughter, who are in "serious peril", as soon as possible.
Judge Russell Collins said falsifying passports was a serious offence and sentenced him to two years' jail.
The judge said millions of people travelled each year and immigration authorities relied on the integrity of the passport system to protect international borders. "We are all conscious of the world we live in."
The 43-year-old Alcalde will be deported on his release from prison, which could be early next year because of the time he spent in custody.
The Northland couple were also charged with passport offences. The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in prison, while his partner is yet to stand trial.
The Department of Internal Affairs declined an interview request, as detailing all security checks for passport applications would undermine efforts to prevent identity fraud.
Checks do include birth records, name changes, biometric matching of photo, handwriting analysis and death records. An Internal Affairs spokesman said there were three cases of fraud last year - or 0.000005 per cent of all passports issued.
"The department has to balance the ability to provide a straightforward passport application system for the vast majority, against the possibility of identity fraud.
"In New Zealand, passport fraud is extremely low due to our investments in passport technology such as use of facial recognition, continuous improvements in security features and our tightly controlled passport assessment processes."
Ring targeted Israeli envoys
Seyed Ramin Miraziz Paknejad is suspected of creating false passports for an alleged plot to bomb Israeli diplomats in Bangkok.
More than 3000 passports and drivers' licences were found in the 45-year-old's Thai apartment, as was sophisticated computer and counterfeiting equipment.
Scanned copies of 19 NZ passports were found among the forged travel documents.
Paknejad was arrested in Thailand after the failed bomb plot in February 2012 but fled after being granted bail. He was rearrested in Malaysia.
Five Iranians are suspected in the plot, which was uncovered when explosives apparently detonated accidentally in Bangkok.
The passports Paknejad created were sold to customers in the Middle East and foreign criminal groups.
Thai authorities have linked the forgery ring to terrorists and drug traffickers and also syndicates trying to smuggle people into countries such as NZ and Australia.
Colonel Songsak Raksaksakul of the Thai police said the bogus documents were sold to more than 3000 buyers in 14 countries at an average of $1000 each.