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Identification: airline employee guilty of faking employment credentials

FCRO Subsection: 
CoNet Administrator

You know that thing about airport security, where no one gets on a flight if they aren't who they say they are? And you know that the USA is so obsessed with airport security under its "war on terror" thing that all flights are locked down tighter than a tight thing?

It's not true and this document fraud shows how lax security really is in the US aviation industry. Remember this the next time some one questions a detail on your ticket at check-in. It's the old thing - the bigger the lie, the less people are likely to spot it.

A former employee of US airline Mesa Airlines has pleaded guilty to a US federal criminal charge that he schemed to manufacture counterfeit Mesa employee identification badges.

The credentials were used to obtain free flights for himself and others on another airline. That means they were able to get on board using false identification.

Hubbard Bell, 32, of Houston, Texas, pleaded guilty via video conference to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Bell worked at Mesa Airlines, a regional airline based at Phoenix, Arizona, from June 2015 until October 2015. While a Mesa employee, Bell was provided access to free tickets as a job benefit. Mesa employees and their designated beneficiaries were permitted to use this benefit only while employed by Mesa Airlines.

Bell admitted that, from February 2016 to November 2017, after Mesa terminated his employment, he conspired with others to sell information, which he was not authorised to obtain, relating to Mesa employees, including their names, dates of commencement and employee identification numbers that were needed to book free flights on Spirit Airlines through Spirit’s web portal for themselves and others.

For example, on 2 June, 2016, Bell received via email confidential Mesa employee information for dozens of Mesa Airlines workers based in Dallas and Houston, Texas.

For himself, Bell fraudulently obtained 34 free airline tickets, which allowed him to fly interstate, including into and out of Los Angeles International Airport, despite the fact Mesa Airlines no longer employed him. Bell also admitted he and his conspirators manufactured and sold fraudulent Mesa employee identification cards for use by the fraudulent travellers.

Other defendants – including Kamille Jemison, 28, a former Houston resident who subsequently moved to the Beverly Grove district of Los Angeles, California, and Alphonso Lloyd, 27, of Houston – are expected to go to trial on similar charges in the spring of 2021. Bell is scheduled to be sentenced on 7 December 2020. He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

There are several issues, some arising from the fact that this was a carefully planned and executed crime, not a spontaneous act.

Someone made a deliberate and careful plan to produce false cards and Bell and the others knew how to obtain such a service. Was there anything that, with hindsight, indicated such criminal associations or tendencies?

Someone obtained unauthorised access, or access for unauthorised purposes, to the airline's personnel records. That is an offence.

Someone e-mailed those records - that's where the "wire fraud" comes in.

Airline identity cards are presumed to be ultra-secure because they give access to "air-side" at airports and that's where all kinds of nefarious activity can take place. However, simply because air crew rarely fly with an entire crew they don't know, the cards were unlikely to allow them to pose as the named person for e.g. cabin duty.

Having said that, Bell, at least, did not book flights on Mesa. It is usual for flying staff to be marked out on passenger lists and, of course, there was the risk that crew would recognise him and notice the different name on his boarding pass and, of course, the passenger list. Thus there is a clear security hole.

The case has far wider implications than the obvious issues in the airline industry.

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