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U.S. Passports Going Digital

December 06, 1998|TIMES STAFF AND WIRES

The U.S. State Department last month began issuing new passports with digital images and other technical changes aimed at thwarting duplication. But don't expect to be the first on your block to get one.

The design is being phased in gradually through the end of 1999, and "we cannot fulfill someone's request for a digitized passport" in the interim, a department spokeswoman said. Your best chance of getting one now is to order a passport through the mail, which is allowed only for renewals, not first-time passport seekers. Many but not all mail-in renewals are processed in the National Passport Center in Portsmouth, N.H., which has the new equipment, the spokeswoman said.

Officials say about 15,000 U.S. passports are stolen each year; some are altered and used by criminals or terrorists. The new design uses a digital image of the bearer instead of a photograph, which thieves sometimes cut out and replace; and a security film layer, similar to a hologram, that incorporates coin designs, an eagle and other images. For information on renewing your passport by mail, call (888) 362-8668 or visit the State Department's Internet site, http://travel.state.gov.

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