The former head of Ghana’s visa fraud unit tells the story about the time someone tried to rent his passport. This was over a decade ago, when this kind of thing was more common, Detective Seth Sewornu says. He had a valid UK visa, and a relative was offering £1000 ($1,300).
Visa fraud in Ghana is brazen, and rising. For five years, Sewornu was at the forefront of investigating the phenomenon, as head of the Ghana Police Visa and Document Fraud Unit.
Even before he was appointed, the detective says he noticed visa fraudsters didn’t think twice about propositioning a cop. “I returned from the UK in 2004, and a distant relative approached me that “Look: you have a visa. This guy looks like you. Let’s give you £1000, so you give him your passport to travel,'” said Sewornu.
There were people at Kotoka International Airport in Accra who could guarantee smooth passage, the relative said. They weren’t worried about UK immigration either: as long the visa was valid, they’d apparently let pretty much anyone pass. Then, once it was all over, the relative promised to make sure the passport was sent back to Sewornu in Ghana. Sewornu was not convinced. “My conscience will not let me: I’m a policeman,” he said. Sewornu didn’t realize it at the time, but he was witnessing the beginnings of a rise in identity fraud.
Ghana has become something of a regional hub for visa fraud, in part because penalties are milder here than they are in other west African countries, investigators say. It means over the past few decades, Ghanaian visa fraudsters have built expertise. There’s also demand: an increasing number of Ghanaians are looking to move abroad—temporarily, or permanently – for economic opportunities, and are willing to spend money on visas. “Any element of this which requires documentation can be faked,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law. “No wonder there are significant amounts of fraud.”
In 2016, Ghana’s Document Fraud Expertise Center looked at 274 cases. There were cases sent in from the immigration service and embassies. But there were also documents sent in from banks, and curiously, a music school and a boxing gym. The Peruvian Consulate alone sent over 23 falsified letters of introduction. There were entire fake passports and single forged entry stamps used to fake a history of travel. Around 46% of the documents the center tested were fake.
Some of these forgeries are easy to spot. A graphic designer, who was on trial for allegedly making a counterfeit visa, claimed he had a side business in minor forgery, like changing grades on school reports. So he didn’t think much of it when an elderly man from the neighborhood asked him to run up a travel document.
The designer said he simply typed ‘American visa’ into Google Images and Photoshopped the best result. Before he knew it, there was a SWAT team at his mother’s house. The worse part, he said, was that he didn’t make much money from the job. “Just 20 cedi ($4.40), and it’s gotten me in trouble.”
Even politicians get caught up in visa fraud. Earlier this year, the British High Commissioner accused three Ghanaian members of parliament of assisting visa fraud using their diplomatic passports. “The Ghanaian Parliament should not be a location where unregistered visa agents approach Honourable Members and act as a conduit for them to participate in visa fraud,” the High Commissioner complained in a leaked letter. One politician apparently said he was taking his 16-year-old daughter on a summer holiday to London. The teenager disappeared after two weeks. British authorities still haven’t managed to find her.
Visa fraud can be unbelievably lucrative for the fraudsters, Sewornu said. He’d spoken to people who’d paid as much as $30,000 for their services. Some had gone as far as selling their houses to pay, according to the detective.One person specialized in manufacturing documents. The surveillance photo showed a portly man dressed in a well-cut suit and expensive sunglasses. The US embassy tipped Sewornu off about him. In an office, investigators found stacks of files containing visa applications going back about a decade.
“He had three cabinets labelled ‘Canadian embassy applications,’ ‘British embassy applications,’ ‘American embassy applications,’” Sewornu said. “This guy has made money.” When detectives went to his mansion to question him, the suspect’s private chef interrupted the interrogation to serve his boss dinner.
Authorities have caught on to the fake document scam. Some embassies even go as far as assuming many documents are falsified, according to Chief Superintendent James Kofi Abraham, the current head of visa fraud. He told me about a woman who had applied for a German visa. “There was an Indian visa in her passport, and said they suspected it was fake. They arrested her and brought her [to police headquarters,]” he said. “Meanwhile, the visa was genuine, she had travelled to India four times.”
This kind of overzealous scrutiny is common for even qualified visa applicants in countries like Ghana, said Muzaffar Chishti at the Migration Policy Institute. “Consular officers have to make a snap decision, and imagine having to make these decisions in about 15 seconds,” said Chishti. “If a guy has seen 14 bad cases in a row, and you’re the 15th, it’s quite likely you’re dishonest too,” he added. “The problem with this is sometimes the truly honest people get caught.”
Despite this, the visa fraud industry shows no sign of slowing down. The latest version is full-scale identity fraud. This targets well-established people with a long history of travel. In September, the government of Ghana announced that a new online passport application system had been flooded with incomplete applications and forged data. They also found that around 10,000 new passports had not been picked up. Sewornu said he was sure many of these were fraudulent.
“What they do now, is to assume the name of a particular person who has travelled before,” Sewornu said. Embassies consider visa applicants who have travelled extensively less likely to overstay visas, so people with travel histories are attractive targets for identity theft. The fraudsters help their clients apply for passports using the identities of established travellers, but with their own biometric data. If the scam works, the client walks into New York’s JFK airport or London’s Heathrow airport with a passport bearing your name, your travel history—but his face.
Number of fraudulent documents detected, Document Fraud Expertise Centre, Jan – Dec 2016
Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.