Faking your way out of trouble Passports: Phony documents can save travelers from terrorists and other hostiles, says a woman who likes to invent countries.

January 18, 1998|By Claudia Kolker | Claudia Kolker,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

World affairs have changed since Donna Walker launched her business 10 years ago.

But fictitious passports, she says, never go out of style.

International Documents Service, Walker's one-woman Houston firm, creates passports from extinct countries. Covered in institutional burgundy, flecked with stamps and seals, the phony documents cost about $215 and look real.

She claims she sells 400 of her "camouflage" passports every year. The idea, she says, is to protect travelers in hostile situations.

"I came out with the passports at the time of the terrorist attacks" in the 1980s, Walker explains. She was particularly gripped by stories of hijackers singling out Americans.

"You're sitting minding your own business and then you're totally disrupted," Walker says. "Totally out of control. So I thought a good passport to hand over would be a good idea."

Who owns the names?

Any alternative passport, she reasoned, had to be both convincing and legal. Walker began wondering who owned the old names of countries that renamed themselves.

Ceylon, which changed its name to Sri Lanka when it became a republic in 1972, came to mind.

"I called the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, D.C., to see if they had any jurisdiction over their former name," Walker says.

They didn't.

She then asked the State Department about her plan.

"They said, 'Of course it's not legal,' " Walker says. "I said, 'Tell me where it says that.' They said they'd get back to me. They never did."

The department's reaction was much the same when contacted recently. "This is most, most questionable," a spokeswoman said initially. After further research, she called back.

If the passports are not used to break U.S. laws, she said, the State Department considers them simply without value. Not illegal.

So apparently without fallout, a client can buy a serious-looking document claiming citizenship in places like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), British Honduras (now Belize), and New Hebrides (today, Vanuatu).

There are about eight other nationalities possible, too, which Walker won't divulge if you don't buy a passport. The world's short memory is her stock-in-trade, and she doesn't want her defunct countries too familiar.

Occasionally, Walker also indulges in making up nations from whole cloth. But she takes pains to make them seem real. Take Sinnebar.

"It's a small country in the Indian Ocean," Walker gushes. "It has national health care, 90 percent literacy and is famous for Sinnebar tea. It's where cinnamon was originally discovered. When Capt. John Driscoll discovered it, he didn't want cinnamon equated with sin, so he changed the spelling."

As the real world changes, Walker's business changes, too, she says. Tiring of some country names, she updates her list with fresher ones.

Whenever there's civil unrest somewhere, the passport business also surges.

Her clientele also has changed, Walker says. In her boom years, the late 1980s, clients mostly wanted passports to evade hijackers.

But since the Berlin Wall fell, Walker says, her biggest clients are Germans, wanting to avoid lingering resentment when they travel in Europe. Most of her clients, she adds, are businessmen.

After a few unsettling episodes, Walker herself doesn't meet clients face-to-face. Instead, she does business via phone or mail or Internet.

Used for good purposes

Despite the clear potential for misuse, Walker insists she wants her passports used for good, not evil. United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia have ordered them, Walker claims, and Americans used them to flee Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

Although she has a taste for publicity -- she prints a newsletter describing close calls supposedly evaded with her passports -- some of Walker's claims are hard to verify.

She won't name any of her clients, and says she neither tracks them nor asks why they want passports. Though she claims representatives from the FBI and State Department call or visit her business "every few years," both agencies report no record of Walker's name.

At the same time, there does seem to be a market for the passports. Ten years after Walker introduced her brainchild, numerous Internet imitators now advertise the same product from as far off as Singapore.

For Walker, the passport trade was logical after a lifetime skirting rules and dreaming of the next big thing.

Walker, 59 and single, grew up in Sebastopol, Miss. After high school, Houston was as far as her bus ticket took her.

Ever since, Walker has hopped from job to job, mostly of the secretarial nature.

"I get bored and angry with myself" in normal jobs, Walker says. "I worked for one company a long time ago, and when I quit, the boss said, 'We're really sorry you're leaving.' "

When Walker thanked him, he clarified his sentiment: She served the company as a guinea pig. "They'd set up rules and regulations," Walker says. "Then they'd watch to see how I got around them."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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