A customs officer checks the travel documents and passports of passengers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 9, 2014. According to an international law enforcement organization that monitors stolen or lost travel documents, four out of 10 passports are not screened against its database of stolen or lost travel documents. Reuters

Italian Luigi Maraldi flew to Thailand last July for what was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime on the popular resort island of Phuket. However, the two-week trip took a sour twist after a bizarre encounter with a motorbike rental agent in the beach town of Patong.

Maraldi had offered his passport as collateral for the rental, but when he returned with the motorbike on July 22, the agent informed him that she’d given his passport to another Italian man who “said Mr. Maraldi was his husband,” according to a report in the local English-language newspaper Phuketwan. Maraldi reported his passport as stolen on July 25 and returned to Italy using a temporary travel document on Aug. 3 -- but the mystery was far from over.

Although Interpol had placed the details of Maraldi’s passport in its Stolen and Lost Travel international database, someone posing as the 37-year-old Italian boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing this past week. That flight went missing early Saturday morning and has yet to be found.

There is rampant speculation that the person posing as Maraldi may have something to do with the disappearance. Another man, after all, had boarded the same Malaysia Airlines flight using yet another passport stolen in Phuket.

The ease with which passports can be stolen and used to cross international borders has shocked many, particularly residents of the U.S. and U.K., whose governments search the Interpol database annually more than 250 million and 130 million times respectively. Other than the UAE, few other countries make use of the database with such frequency.

“Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said Sunday.

Noble added that not a single country, including Malaysia, had performed a check of the stolen Austrian and Italian passports since their owners reported them missing. Thus, the international police agency said, it was unable to determine how many other occasions these passports may have been used to board flights and cross borders.

“This is a situation we had hoped never to see,” Noble noted. “For years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates. Now, we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.”

Sophisticated Passport Theft Rings

Thailand has long been known as a booming market for stolen passports. Paul Quaglia, who has worked in Southeast Asia as a security risk analyst for 14 years, told CNN that, while the situation in Thailand is better than it was a decade ago, it’s “still not up to international standards.”

“Unfortunately, Thailand remains a robust venue for the sale of high-quality false passports (which includes altered stolen passports) and other supporting documentation," he said. Yet not all “lost” passports are necessarily “stolen.”

“Some passports 'lost' are actually sold by the passport holder. Some young men and others traveling to Thailand, short on cash after extended partying and high living, can be approached to sell a passport, which can be easily replaced at embassies upon presentation of a routine 'lost passport' police report," he said.

Governments the world over have invested heavily in the past decade in adding watermarks and encrypted authenticating information to passports in an attempt to combat increasingly sophisticated passport forgers and the theft rings they employ.

Fake passports sell for between $800 and $1,500 on the black market and are often created by printing a false photo page on an existing passport. They’re predominantly used for smuggling laborers, prostitutes or other illegal migrants, though convicted terrorists like the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, also flew on falsified documents.

Security experts warned Sunday that even if the Malaysia Airlines crash had nothing to do with the two individuals traveling on stolen passports, it should serve as a wake-up call that travel documents are easy to steal, alter and replicate -- and all too often, no one is checking.

What To Do If Your Passport Is Stolen Abroad

The as yet unsolved mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cast a spotlight on the growing problem of identity theft and forced many to openly wonder just what exactly they’d do if they found themselves in Maraldi’s situation.

“The reality is that a lost or stolen passport can mean more than the pain and expense of getting a new document. It can also lead to serious cases of identity theft. So if you find yourself with a lost or stolen passport, you want to be sure that you handle the situation appropriately and quickly,” Nikki Junker, of the Identity Theft Resource Center, noted in a recent report.

U.S. citizens should immediately contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance if their passport is lost or stolen abroad. If the passport was stolen as part of a serious crime, consular officers can provide immediate assistance.

Filing a police report for a stolen passport is important for two reasons. One: You can help authorities to track down the passport and/or the person/persons responsible for stealing it. Two: You will need to show proof that the document was stolen to travel onward.

In order to issue a new passport, for example, the U.S. embassy or consulate will ask for a copy of the police report, in addition to identification (driver’s license, expired passport), proof of U.S. citizenship (birth certificate, photocopy of the missing passport), a copy of your travel itinerary and two completed forms (DS-11 and DS-64).

The consulate or embassy will then issue either a full 10-year replacement passport or a limited-validity emergency passport that can be produced more quickly to allow you to return to the U.S. or continue on your trip. Even with your new passport in hand, however, there is no telling when your old passport may end up on a plane at the bottom of the ocean.