THE BROADER PICTURE: MICKEY MOUSE'S FUNNY MONEY

Once upon a time, the Anglo-Saxon traveller venturing outside the safe haven of sterling or dollar felt, deep down, that all these little coins in an unfamiliar currency were Mickey Mouse money. Nowadays, in the worldwide scam of vending-machine fraud, a variety of funny money is being used, including one that the big-eared rodent is, literally, helping to produce.

The fraud is practised by individual tourists and by organised gangs who replace national currency with foreign currency of lesser value, customise it to ape the shape and weight of the real thing, and use it to extract chocolate bars or cigarettes. Methods of customising the coins are simple: stickers made from plastic and silver foil are used to enlarge or thicken them and dupe the vending-machine mechanism. For example, French 20-centime coins have been converted into single Deutschmarks with Mickey Mouse stickers. Polish zlotys, Swedish kronor, Estonian kroons and old-sized British and Irish 5p pieces, too, have all been successfully deployed as phoney DMs - worth considerably more.

But where there's money there's brass; a Sussex-based company whose business is sorting loose change makes well over pounds 1m a year - and much of it is from defrauded vending-machines. Each week, Coin Company International buys tons of coins from banks, charities and chain stores throughout Europe and Canada. Having painstakingly sorted the mixed coinage into national currencies, CCI sells it back to its various countries of origin.

CCI was set up by Geoff Rawlinson and John Baker, former Laker Airways employees who had to sort coins accumulated through in-flight sales. "Often very small amounts came in, which because they were too small to be converted to sterling we just threw into a bread basket," says Baker. They did some research, and discovered that the supply of such foreign coinage was large enough to support a business. Now, 15 years later, their company has a staff of 13 and a yearly turnover of pounds 1.6m - and its founders have learnt a lot about deceiving vending-machines.

Similarities between coins of different currencies make life easier for the fraudster. The Swedish 5-kronor coin, for example, bears a strong resemblance to the 5-DM coin; more exotically, Baker points out, the Swaziland 1-lilangeni coin is a near-lookalike of the British pound. Needless to say, the profitability of the scam depends on the accessibility of weak- currency coins. CCI's German clients are rich in Eastern European coins, the French ones have lots of Algerian coins and the UK scores heavily with Irish and former Commonwealth coins. Geography and historical ties have a lot to do with such traffic, as do wars. During the Falklands War, CCI's percentage of Ascension Island and Falkland Islands coins increased.

The inglorious tradition of defrauding coin-operated machines is as old as their invention. In 1891, in the early days, The Illustrated American wrote of a policeman "attracted by shouts of delight raised by a crowd of spectators in a public thoroughfare": a "gentleman" was using a hole- punched nickel with wire attached to empty a cigar vending-machine, before distributing his booty to the crowd. CCI has an old 5p coin with a metal strip welded on like a spoon, presumably for the same recycling purposes.

According to calculations made by RJ Reynolds, the US tobacco manufacturers and a client of CCI, the German tobacco industry lost approximately 6m DM (pounds 2.5m) last year through vending-machine fraud. It's harder to get evidence from British companies. Roger Williams, MD of Coinadrink, is currently preparing a seminar on "VM" security. "We know there's a problem but people are being circumspect about acknowledging it," Williams says. Increasingly, hi-tech coin validation mechanisms are being pitted against human cunning in what Williams describes as "a permanent battle of wits" between man and machine. However, as John Baker of CCI notes, perhaps with a certain satisfaction: "There hasn't been a machine invented yet that's going to stop it." !

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?