Addressing Significant Vulnerabilities in the Department of State's Passport Issuance Process

GAO-09-583R: Published: Apr 13, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 13, 2009.

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A genuine U.S. passport is a vital document, permitting its owner to travel freely into and out of the United States, prove U.S. citizenship, obtain further identification documents, and set up bank accounts, among other things. Since May 2005, we have issued several reports identifying significant fraud vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process. This report (1) describes our recent work on passport fraud and (2) summarizes actions the Department of State (State) has indicated it is taking to address the fraud vulnerabilities we identified.

In 2005, we reported that using the stolen identities and documentation of U.S. citizens is the primary tactic of those fraudulently applying for U.S. passports, and that passport fraud is often linked to other crimes. Our report mentioned a number of ways in which a person might fraudulently obtain a U.S. passport, including using an assumed identity that is supported by genuine but fraudulently obtained identification documents; submitting false claims of lost, stolen, or mutilated passports; using counterfeit citizenship documents; and using the identity of a deceased person. We also reported weaknesses in State's information sharing with other federal agencies. A little over 2 years later, in July 2007, we recommended that State take additional actions to address weaknesses in the oversight of passport acceptance facilities (e.g., USPS locations). While we reported State had taken actions to address some weaknesses we had previously identified in the acceptance agent program, such as the need for improved training of acceptance agents, we found that many of the previously identified problems in the oversight of the acceptance facilities persisted. Specifically, State lacked a formal oversight program for its acceptance facilities to ensure effective controls are established and monitored regularly, a lack that State officials believed contributed to problems with applications received through acceptance agents. In March 2009, we reported that our undercover tests confirmed the continued existence of significant fraud vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process. Our undercover investigator was easily able to obtain four genuine U.S. passports using counterfeit or fraudulently obtained documents. State officials agreed that our investigation exposed a major vulnerability in the department's passport issuance process and acknowledged that they have issued other fraudulently obtained passports in the past. In order to improve State's current passport fraud detection capabilities, officials said that State would need greater cooperation from other agencies at both the federal and state levels, and the ability to access other agencies' records in real time. State continues to struggle with reducing fraud risks at both the application point and the adjudication point. With respect to acceptance, State officials told us that they are in the process of improving oversight of passport acceptance facilities as we recommended in our July 2007 report. Although State has proposed reasonable oversight measures for passport acceptance facilities in response to our July 2007 recommendations, it is too early to determine whether these measures will be effective.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Department of State's (State) Bureau of Consular Affairs has provided reference materials to all acceptance facilities on documents acceptable for confirming the identify of passport applicants, and has provided standardized fraud training for agents at acceptance facilities. Beginning in April 2009, State provided Passport Acceptance Facilities guides of identification documents with which to compare against documents presented by passport applicants, according to State officials. In addition, these officials noted that State's Bureau of Consular Affairs has established a working group to standardize fraud training for acceptance facility employees, and State's Fraud Prevention Managers have conducted additional field training for acceptance agents to help them to better identify counterfeit documents.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should improve the training and resources available to passport acceptance facility employees for detecting passport fraud, especially related to detecting counterfeit documents.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State concurred with the recommendation. In response to the recommendation, State officials explained that State began working to acquire real-time verification of social security numbers in September 2011. According to these officials, full implementation of the system began in January 2013. These officials stated that the system allows State to verify social security numbers within seconds of transmission, and thus State no longer has to wait twenty-four hours for verification. In addition, State subscribes to the Death Master File through the Department of Commerce, National Technical Information Service, according to State officials. State's checks of the Death Master file have been automated since August 2008. However, as implemented in October 2009, if a return of the automated check is unavailable, the system will automatically run a check against the Death Master File. Certain applications, such as those processed within twenty-four hours, must be held for Social Security Administration checks and additional database checks must be performed unless a previous Social Security Administration check has been conducted, according to State officials. These officials explained that these additional database checks are required to be performed at adjudication by a supervisor or a senior passport specialist approved by a Director, Assistant Director, and the Adjudication Manager.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should, for applications containing an SSN, establish a process whereby passport specialists are not able to issue a passport prior to receiving and reviewing the results of SSN and Death Master File checks, except under specific or extenuating circumstances and after supervisory review.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of State (State) has adopted two commercial systems to help verify the validity of vital information provided by passport applicants. These computer systems are typically used by government and law enforcement entities to search a broad collection of public records, according to State officials. These officials explained that State uses these systems to detect fraud by comparing passport application data to the public records available in these systems. According to these officials, passport specialists also check certain additional vital information in these commercial databases to confirm the information for those applicants requesting emergency passports. State indicated that any discrepancies between the information submitted on passport applications and the corresponding database records are referred to a supervisor for review.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should explore commercial options for performing real-time checks of the validity of SSNs and other information included in applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of State's (State) Passport Services collaborated with other State offices, including Citizenship Fraud, Consular Integrity Division and Diplomatic Security, to develop the Procedural Integrity Testing and Training (PITT) program, which was initiated in September 2009, according to State officials. These officials noted that since full implementation of the program in early 2010, State has analyzed the success or failure of each test conducted, evaluated the resources and training available to passport specialists and acceptance agents, and attempted to correct any identified weaknesses in the system where they appear. According to State officials, these tests are conducted randomly and use covert investigative methods similar to those conducted by GAO. Additionally, in August 2010, State initiated the Acceptance Facility Oversight program, which includes inspections of acceptance facilities. Under the program, State officials observe the interaction between acceptance agents and passport applicants while processing passport applications; and conduct interviews with the acceptance agents about acceptance procedures, according to State officials. In addition, State officials noted that they also conduct a visual inspection of the acceptance facility to evaluate the security procedures of the acceptance agents.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should conduct "red team" (covert) tests similar to our own and use the results of these tests to improve the performance of passport acceptance agents and passport specialists.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of State (State) is working to implement state-level database verification of vital records, including checks of birth certificates, driver's licenses and identification cards, and death certificate information. State has gained access to state-level databases predominantly through national non-governmental organizations, although State is also negotiating direct access to several state-level databases. According to State officials, State has included these database checks into the passport adjudication process. For example, with regard to checks of the validity of state-issued birth certificates, State has acquired access to a database system that provides State the capability to check the validity of birth certificates issued by 48 U.S. states and territories. In addition, State has acquired and provided passport specialists access to records of state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards to verify the validity of these documents.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with state-level officials to develop a strategy to gain access to the necessary state databases and incorporate reviews of these data into the adjudication process.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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