State should create a comprehensive anti-fraud training program for specialists and set up a system to prevent them from issuing passports until they have completed searches in Social Security Administration databases, according to an April 13 letter from GAO to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which plans to hold hearings on the issue in May.
The department also could benefit from working more with state agencies to double-check information about applicants' identities, and sending its own investigators undercover to test the passport screening process, GAO said.
The letter, signed by GAO International Affairs and Trade Director Jess Ford and Forensic Audits and Special Investigations Managing Director Gregory Kutz, followed a March report detailing how a single GAO investigator used fraudulent information to obtain four different passports. In one case, he used a Social Security number of a man who died in 1965. In another, he assumed a fictitious identity established by SSA. The Social Security number was real but the imaginary person assigned to it was 5 years old and the investigator's other identifying documents -- also counterfeit -- showed him to be 53 years old.
This should have set off alarm bells, GAO said, noting that the issue is hardly new. The March report followed a 2005 study outlining security problems in the passport application process, and a 2007 list of recommended remedies.
"State officials have known about vulnerabilities in the passport issuance process for many years, but have failed to effectively address these vulnerabilities," Ford and Kutz wrote in the letter. "The fact that our undercover investigator obtained a genuine U.S. passport using the [Social Security number] of a man who died in 1965 is particularly troubling given that a simple check of SSA's publicly available Death Master File would have disclosed the fraud."
State has bolstered its security procedures and training since the March report.
"We have worked, and we will continue to work to improve training procedures and oversight of the passport application process," said Laura Tischler, a spokeswoman for the department.
She said State officials were looking at some security procedures that would go beyond GAO's recommendations -- such as facial recognition software currently used for visa applications. The employees duped by the undercover investigator have had their authority to approve passports suspended pending further training, she added.
"These tests show that we need to do more, and we're doing more," Tischler said.
But GAO officials appeared skeptical and said State must take a more comprehensive approach toward preventing passport fraud.
"We acknowledge these are positive steps, but we believe State must follow through with these actions to effectively address the significant fraud vulnerabilities we identified," the letter stated.