How can we prevent sophisticated document fraud in 2021?

Last updated: 06 June 2021

It’s hard to imagine that there’s still a big trade for counterfeit documentation and forged IDs. After all, we’re living in a connected era where it feels like much of our lives is spent online and accessed digitally through protected credentials. We’ve become so used to believing that online details – like internet bank accounts and Government tax portals – are inherently more valuable than physical documents (driving licenses, passports, etc.) that we often forget that document fraud is a highly valuable market.

The reality is that document fraud costs the global economy £3.2 trillion annuallyIt is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, and it continues to grow. 

But why is this the case? And what can be done to slow this disruptive and damaging practice? 

Why was document fraud so prevalent in 2020? 

Document fraud is defined as the manufacturing, counterfeiting, alteration, sale, and/or use of identity documents and other fraudulent documents to circumvent immigration laws or for other criminal activity” (Source: Interpol). As a term, it can encompass a number of things, including the alteration of genuine issued government documents as well as the creation of false documents that imitate real ones.   

Its continued popularity among criminals is due to the fact that fraudulent documents can be used in the commission of a number of crimes, including terrorism, human trafficking, money laundering, the distribution of narcotics, as well as financial and trade crimes.  

The reason that effectively counterfeited documents were sought after in 2020 is the fact that as they have become more difficult to tamper with or imitate, the greater prize they are for criminals. Even with the introduction of highly sophisticated biometrics onto documentation, the promise of tamper-proof official documents remains a holy grail amongst criminal gangs. 

What are the types of document fraud? 

There are a number of routes to carrying out document fraud that are important to underline before we start talking about measures designed to prevent them: 

  1. Image fraud: Image fraud is usually carried out when an attacker provides an image of the ID document, rather than the document itself – making it easier to manipulate. This sort of fraud falls into four key subcategories. These are physical tampering, an inherently manual task that involves placing a cut picture on an ID; digital tampering, where Photoshop – or other image programmes – are used to manipulate an ID; white hack hacking, which is an ethical form of fraud used to test a document/system’s vulnerabilities; and liveness fraud, which is when fraudsters make it impossible for the company to tell if the document is real (or ‘live’) or a photocopy 
  1. Illegitimate documents: These are completely false documents that have characteristics missing, such as holograms and other standards that are essential parts of the document. These also generally fall into two subcategories; counterfeits, which are reproductions of the original; or pseudo documents. 
  1. False documents: Unlike illegitimate documents, false documents is a term used when someone attempts to use a legitimate ID that doesn’t belong to them i.e. if John Smith stole Jacob Smith’s passport and tried to use it to travel abroad. 
  1. Modified documents: This is a hybrid approach to document fraud, and usually occurs when an original and genuine document is altered. This can include forgeries and the manipulation of blank documents, which might be stolen directly from the manufacturer. 

How to prevent and detect document fraud 

While the days of low-tech deception, as seen in the movie Catch Me If You Can are a thing of the past, unfortunately, criminals are getting more and more creative – as the above has highlighted. Document fraud has become more sophisticated as the technology designed to prevent and detect it has become more advanced too.  

Fortunately, by following best practice and using refined technological systems designed to catch fraud, it’s possible for authorities to stay ahead of criminals. Let’s first talk about preventing document fraud. 


The key to preventing document fraud is in designing a more secure document – which sounds simple enough, but uses a number of refined techniques. At Thales, we outlined a number of key features that could be implemented to make tampering with existing identity documents much harder. This includes using polycarbonate for ID documents, due to its non-delaminable properties – making the separation of separate layers of the card impossible. This makes it unfeasible for a scammer with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers to swap photos or information from the document without destroying the ID itself. 

Other important tamper-proof solutions can include adding positive or negative embossing in the form of lenses and micro text. See through ‘windows’ on IDs (which you might recognise from banknotes) can be quickly checked for veracity by officials, because any form of tampering can be quickly spotted as scratches on the transparent element. Layering multiple windows to create a design that fits the card layout adds yet more security, while also ensuring that the style of the document is uncompromised.    


Detecting fraudulent documents, as mentioned above, requires a savvy combination of human expertise and advanced technology. Identity Verification, for example, can limit the risk of fraud but has its limitations – such as when doing checks in 2D in white light. However, pairing this with a cross-check of other databases to work out if the document is stolen or lost can work effectively. 

The growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is greatly helping automated software to detect fraud. By harnessing the power of AI, machines are improving all the time in their ability to detect fraudulent activity – this includes carrying out better data consistency checks, improving the integrity of data going in, the ability to verify electronic documents more effectively (using the likes of font analysis) and visual security checks when in 2D light.  

At the same time, human operators are kept up to date on the latest technology iterations and security trends change all the time with training – meaning they are truly getting more effective all the time, as long as there are special tools for them to use.   


Overall though, the key to preventing document fraud in 2021 is through a combination of best in class prevention techniques and a detection process that involves a technology-led human approach to spotting the signs of forgery. When you think that biometrics are increasingly being added to documents too, it’s clear that the fight against document fraud is swinging in favour of those upholding the law! 

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