Millions lost in massive stamp fraud

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THE POST OFFICE is being targeted by stamp fraudsters cheating it out of millions of pounds every year. The trade in counterfeit and "washed" stamps, with the postage marks removed, has become increasingly lucrative because scams are difficult to detect and penalties are comparatively light.

The next few weeks will stretch the resources of the Post Office Investigations Branch to the limit as it tries to crack down on the criminals. The Christmas deluge of mail that will be posted offers a golden opportunity to the fraudsters.

Investigators will be stepping up monitoring operations in a national effort to identify the ersatz stamps, but with sorting offices working flat out to process more than two billion letters and cards as quickly as possible, the chances of detection are slim.

Steve Richards has researched the techniques employed by stamp criminals for several years, and is publishing what he believes will be an "explosive" book on postal fraud next year.

One of the most common scams is "washing" stamps. The stamps are bathed in household chemicals to erase the postmark. "It does make you think when you lick a stamp, whether it may have been licked before," said Mr Richards.

In one case, a "washer" used a charity front to collect stamps, claiming it was part of an appeal. "He would then 'wash' them in the bath - up to 50,000 at a time - then sell them at half the face value as water- damaged stock to direct-mail companies that need stamps in bulk," said Mr Richards. "He even sold them to firms of solicitors."

Straight forgery is made simple by sophisticated colour photocopiers. The perforations can be reproduced using scissors, or even a sewing machine.

The secretive Post Office Investigation Branch, which is staffed by former MI5 and MI6 operatives, refuses to discuss the issue of large-scale stamp fraud for fear of encouraging imitators.

One of the few official comments on the subject came when the former Tory junior trade minister, Patrick McLoughlin, revealed in a letter to Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP, that stamp fraud was a "huge problem". He admitted: "There is little hope of eradicating it."

At the other end of the spectrum are the collectors and dealers who use their in-depth knowledge of rare stamps to transform worthless stamps into ostensibly valuable items.

In 1995, the cloistered world of philately was shaken by the confession by a leading dealer that he had been forging rare stamps for more than a decade. Alan Wilson, a bookish 36-year-old bachelor who lives with his mother in Luton, walked into his local police station and told officers he had tampered with ordinary stamps to make them appear rarer and more valuable.

The sophisticated fraud brought him about pounds 100,000, but his sense of guilt eventually led him to confess. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence and fined pounds 30,000. Ironically, the fakes he manufactured were of such a high standard they have since become sought after by collectors.

Indeed, the forgery of stamps is almost as old as stamps themselves. Two years ago, a Victorian imitation of the Penny Red was sold for pounds 12,650 at auction at Christie's.

It had been produced in 1856 for the Post Office which was worried that fake stamps might flood the market, so it had asked an engraver to reproduce the design, to see how accurately it could be done.