What are the dangers of Malawi losing passport data as Immigration denies reports as ‘false’

By Burnett Munthali

Malawi government suspended the issuing of passports following a cyber-attack on the immigration service’s computer network. President Lazarus Chakwera told Members of Parliament (MPs) that the targeting of the department amounted to a “serious national security breach”. He revealed that the hackers were asking for a ransom. But the president said the government would not give in to their demands and was working to resolve the problem.

Access your bank account or add unauthorized users to your account

Because your passport is an accepted form of identification, scammers can use it to try and gain access to your bank account. Here’s how this scam can happen:

Scammers gather information about you

Fraudsters use your passport number to gather more details about you online, such as your date of birth, address, and Social Security number (SSN). They can obtain this information via data breaches, phishing attempts, or from your social media accounts. Next, they impersonate you at your bank. Using your personal information, scammers can pose as you when contacting your bank. If bank representatives think they are talking with the legitimate account holder, they may ask for your passport as proof of identity.

Then, they exploit weak security questions. If your bank uses security questions to authenticate, scammers may be able to answer them with the information they’ve gathered. These security questions can be easily guessed or found online in some instances. Finally, they take over (and empty) your account. Once scammers convince a bank representative that they are the account holder, they can request changes to your account such as updating contact information or changing online banking passwords. Scammers can also add their names to your bank accounts using counterfeit passport cards. In a recent scam, a North Texas man stole $1.9 million from Chase bank customers using fake passports that included the victims’ names and identifying information but different photos. 

Open fraudulent bank accounts in your name

While using a passport to access a current bank account is a lengthy and risky process, it’s much easier for scammers to use fake or stolen passports to open new accounts in your name. Just two years ago, one man admitted to committing bank fraud to steal over $450,000 by using fake passports. In order to open bank accounts, deposit fraudulent checks, and withdraw money, he attached his photograph to four different forged passports. Sign up for a credit monitoring service to alert you if anyone is trying to open an account or take out a loan in your name.

Bypass 2FA to gain access to your online accounts.

On some websites, scammers can use your stolen passport numbers as alternative proof of identity (POI) when requesting a password reset or changing your two-factor authentication (2FA) settings. With just your passport number and a few other pieces of information, they could gain access to your email account, websites that store your credit card information, or even your online bank account.

Mine for more of your personal data on the Dark Web

The Dark Web is a layer of the internet that isn’t easily accessible by the average internet user. While there are legitimate reasons to use the Dark Web, it’s favored by criminals and hackers because it allows them to anonymously sell or trade stolen information and illegal goods. If scammers have your passport number, they can use it to find other sensitive information about you on the Dark Web, including your: Driver’s license number, Social Security number (SSN), Banking information, Credit card numbers, Online account passwords, Scammers can purchase this information in bulk for a low cost. Once they have all the data, they can create a more complete profile of you to use when opening fraudulent bank accounts or applying for loans. 

Create a more authentic forged passports

Passport numbers and scans can be used to create a forged physical passport. While a forger might get caught when trying to enter countries like the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, forged passports can still be used as legitimate IDs for committing identity fraud within a country. If your passport number is stolen, scammers could create forgeries and sell them on the Dark Web for less than $1,000. Check if someone is using your passport to travel illegally. The website in some countrieswill show all border crossings occurring under your name or passport. If you think someone is traveling under your name, you should check this resource online.

Target you with fake breach notifications

Scammers often prey on fear. If they find your passport number online, they could use it to create a fake data breach notification and steal even more sensitive information from you. For example, scammers could wait for a highly publicized data breach such as the 2022 American Airlines breach and then send phishing emails claiming your passport was stolen. If you click on a link in these emails, it will send you to a fake website that steals more of your personal information.

Build a synthetic identity using your ID

A synthetic identity is a combination of real and fake personal information that creates a new, fake identity. For about $1,200, scammers can take your passport and personal information like your full name, place of birth, and SSN and build a fake identity to use for themselves.

Apply for government benefits in your name

Scammers can also apply for government benefits using your passport number, leaving you on the hook for any aftermath or repercussions. In this type of identity theft, scammers can pose as you to receive benefits to which you are entitled such as unemployment insurance, healthcare subsidies, or Social Security disbursements.

Travel to other countries

Fraudsters can travel internationally under your name by using fake or manipulated passports. This may involve altering the biographical data, photo, or electronic chip embedded in the passport. Once they’ve entered another country, scammers can use your fake passport to commit crimes and evade law enforcement. Act quickly: If you know that your actual passport has been stolen, report it as lost or stolen immediately. If scammers try to use it, they will be immediately detained and the passport will be confiscated.

Commit employment fraud

Fraudsters can also use your passport number when applying for jobs that they wouldn’t otherwise get due to visa restrictions or background checks. If someone gains employment under your name, it can cause serious headaches during tax season or when you try to apply for government or Social Security benefits.

Conclusion*

The Ministry of Homeland Security told Malawians that they have recovered 90 percent of the system. Now comes this data issue. On Thursday, President Chakwera warned the authorities to retake possession of the system or face the chop.

Immigration department responded few hours later in Saturday 2 March 2024 saying that they were working towards the deadline and dispelled what they called passport data loss claims.  In a Press release signed by Public Relations Officer,Wellington Chiponde  the immigration department categorically refuted any claims that there has been any data loss and encouraged the media to verify through appropriate channels to desist front false reporting