Police nab suspected passport appointment scalper

Suspect employed at national laboratory involved in issuing passports believed to have booked hundreds of slots, then sold them for cash

An Israeli passport on January 18, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Israeli passport on January 18, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Israel Police said Sunday that it detained a man suspected of scooping up hundreds of passport appointments, and then illegally selling the time slots for cash.

The suspect is a 25-year-old resident of the Haredi town of Beitar Illit in the West Bank, police said in a statement.

He is employed by a company that provides services to the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona. New Israeli passports issued are usually biometric.

Israel is facing a backlog of hundreds of thousands of people seeking to renew or obtain passports from the Interior Ministry. The logjam has created a chronic shortage of time slots, exacerbated by bad actors who used bots to sweep them up and then offered them for sale.

Police believe the suspect took advantage of the computer systems at the institute to book hundreds of passport appointments, which were then sold to others. There is usually no fee to book an appointment at the Interior Ministry.

An undercover investigation was opened a month ago when a Defense Ministry security group passed on to the police Lahav 433 national crime unit a report indicating prohibited use of the internet at the Ness Ziona institute. The two bodies then worked together on the case.

The suspect was to be brought for a remand hearing later in the day at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court.

Last week the Interior Ministry launched a month of extended office hours and services to tackle the delays in obtaining a passport, during which citizens can show up for passport services without an appointment.

With the opening of Operation Passport Marathon, long lines quickly formed at the four main Interior Ministry bureaus where it was offered — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba.

For at least a year, various networks of hackers and bots have captured thousands of appointments in the government’s online system and sold them for up to hundreds of dollars, causing a serious lack of availability at Interior Ministry offices.

Those needing to make appointments to renew their passports have often been forced to wait months for an opening, especially in larger cities.

The current long wait for passport appointments has its roots in the COVID-19 pandemic, during which international travel was severely curtailed while lockdowns also limited both the government’s ability to issue new passports.

This created a backlog of an estimated one million passports that need renewal, quickly leading to all available appointments being swamped last year when pandemic restrictions were removed. The issue has been exacerbated by the companies and bots taking advantage of citizens’ desperation and booking up appointments for sale.

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