BANGKOK, Thailand -- Counterfeit identification cards of U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Interpol, airline cabin crew and other officials are openly sold in the street for $25, produced in a few hours, and can include anyone's name and photo.

Freshly printed, mint condition, plastic ID cards -- based on genuine U.S. and international documents -- are available at souvenir stalls on tourist-packed Khao San Road near Bangkok's fabled Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Big signs plastered with dozens of counterfeit cards are erected each day on the walking street among stalls and shops offering inexpensive Thai food, clothing, jewelry, airline tickets, massages, tattoos, music and video discs, a Burger King, banks, beauty parlors and other goods and services.

Amazed and amused customers, from all over the world, browse through thick folders of pictures showing hundreds of different counterfeit cards including California, Texas, New York and other U.S. and foreign driver licenses, plus Air France, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and other international "Cabin Attendant, Cabin Crew" staff cards.

An FBI card says it is also an authorized "Weapons Permit."

A DEA card from the "United States Department of Justice," issued by the "Attorney General of the United States," displays a photo and right thumb print, and identifies its holder as a "Special Agent in Charge."

A U.S. Department of Defense "Contractor" card from the "United States Uniformed Services" is also on sale alongside an "Interpol International Police, Department of Investigations" ID for a "Special Agent, Anti-Terrorism Division."

The extensive choice includes a Kaiser Permanente Health Plan Benefits card, a Canadian "Firearms License" and other unusual documents.

U.S. Social Security card, number 149-15-2483, is also available, and does not require a photo.

Page after page of paper menus show how each card looks -- front and back.

Bangkok's forgers use their vast collection of legal, original documents as a template and simply insert any photo and biographical data requested by a customer, before manufacturing a new plastic card.

Most prices start at around $25.

The purchased result displays high-resolution digital printing, on a new flat card, similar in thickness and appearance to a typical credit card, but not embossed and without high security intaglio and hologram features.

A Belgian tourist, surprised that the cards are sold publicly in the street, warned a potential customer from purchasing any of the documents.

Asked if these counterfeit cards were openly sold like this in Belgium, he replied: "No, no, they [authorities] pick you up, man."

A popular choice among foreigners is a $10 fake International Student Identity Card which claims the person is enrolled at any university the customer names.

The student ID can result in discounted tickets or entrance fees in Europe and elsewhere.

Fake press cards, also $10, can be used to trick government and security officials into allowing the holder into restricted, protected venues.

Many of the other ID cards can also be used by people trying to bluff their way through security barricades, or into airports and onto commercial airlines, or for registering at hotels and other places under false pretences.

Khao San Road's counterfeit stalls have been openly selling fake ID cards for several years, flooding the international market with countless documents, which are continually updated and have become increasingly varied in choice.

When asked about the fake IDs, a U.S. Embassy security official said the State Department was primarily concerned with fraudulent passports and visas -- which are not openly sold -- and the embassy relied on Thailand's police to deal with Khao San Road's counterfeit cards.

A heavy police presence constantly patrols Khao San Road which it is frequently cited by foreign and Thai government officials as a potential target for terrorists, because it is crowded, day and night, with tourists.

A police roadblock protects the walking street from unauthorized vehicles, and a large police station is situated at one end of the block.

Police said they will arrest people who attempt to use any forged ID cards illegally within Thailand, or if anyone sells forged Thai documents -- which were not available among the foreign cards.

But police were unable to explain why the stalls were allowed to openly sell counterfeit foreign identification -- with cops frequently walking past the signs and touts -- prompting speculation that corruption may be involved at some level.

"The Thai Criminal Code, which relates to the counterfeiting and alteration of documents, contains specific provisions against forgeries like this," two Bangkok law firms recently said in a joint published warning.

The code outlaws "fabricating a false document or part of a document; adding, taking from, or otherwise altering a genuine document; putting a false seal or signature on a document, in order to make any person believe the document is genuine and in a manner likely to cause injury to another person or the public.

"The above description would include inserting your photo or name or signature into an otherwise genuine document," Chavalit Finch and Partners, and Siam City Law Offices said.

"Since the use of fake documents is likely to cause injury to other persons or the public, phony ID cards and passports would be considered forged documents under Thai law."

Violation of the law is punishable by up to three years in jail, plus a fine.

"Buying such a document may make the buyer an instigator. Under Thai law, an instigator is exposed to the same penalty as the person actually falsifying the document," the law firms said.

"Thailand is a party to treaties against international terrorism. Since use of false identification documents is the primary method terrorists use to move between countries, some of these treaties contain provisions about fake identification.

"If you are arrested in Thailand for buying altered identification documents from other countries, you may be exposed to the laws of the other countries in connection with the alteration of their official documents, as well," Chavalit Finch and Partners, and Siam City Law Offices said.

"If the Thai authorities believe the intent was to make any person believe that the document was genuine, there is a crime, whether the quality of the forgery was good or not," the law firms said.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)