Beware: the pound in your pocket may not be worth as much as you think

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The Independent Online

The pound, Harold Wilson confidently assured the British public at the time of devaluation, would still be worth the same in their pockets. Today, the pound coin in your pocket may often be worth nothing at all - because it is a fake.

Increasing numbers of counterfeit pound coins - varying in quality from very good to very bad - are turning up in change in shops and supermarkets, pubs, bars and restaurants, inquiries by The Independent have established.

But establishing the scale of the problem is difficult, with all the official bodies involved - the police, Home Office, Treasury and Royal Mint - readily acknowledging the existence of fake coins but stepping back from any attempt to quantify it. And the Bank of England, which theoretically is in charge of the pound in our pockets, doesn't actually deal in coins.

However, according to figures released by the Royal Mint last month in answer to a parliamentary question, counterfeit pound coins now account for almost 1 per cent of all the coins in circulation. But even that estimate is subject to many caveats.

Part of the problem is that many people are unaware of the high number of bogus coins in their pockets and purses, simply because that, without close examination, they can pass for the real thing. If one doesn't work in a slot machine, most people simply dig out one that will pass though and the dodgy one goes back into the pocket or purse for use elsewhere without further thought.

And there is little incentive for the public to hand over any they suspect are not the real thing, because there is no mechanism for compensation, and people would simply be out of pocket. Banks return any suspect coins or notes to the Mint while the police will, in theory, retain them for investigation.

Coin dealers have been aware for some time of the increase in fakes, mainly since the mid-1990s, and there have been recent anecdotal reports of quantities appearing in some pubs and shops in London. There have also been reports of fake coins turning up earlier this year in the Shetland Islands and last year in west Wales, prompting alerts from police to shopkeepers and others to monitor their change.

Gerry Day, who works for a leading London coin dealer, AH Baldwin, has been studying the problem for several years. He said yesterday: "I've been watching this since 1995, when they started to appear in a big way, although there have always been a few around. I've got a load of them here. Some of them have been very good, others are very bad. But there are certainly a lot of them out there.''

One Independent reader, who asked for his name not to be used, said: "I seem to be getting more and more of them in my change, particularly from some shops in central and west London. I couldn't believe it at first, but now I look at all my change closely.''

Identifying fake pound coins, once you know how, is easy. Each year since they were introduced in 1983, the design on the reverse has changed. (The designs are emblems of either the UK as a whole or of England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.) The quickest way to check whether a coin is genuine is making sure that the date and the design on the reverse match; on many fakes they do not. Similarly, the Latin motto on the edge of the coin should also correspond to the right year.

But even if the reverse is correct for the year, there may be other giveaways. On many fakes, the ribbed edge is poorly defined and the Latin lettering uneven in depth and spacing. On the front, the Queen's head may not be sufficiently proud and the stippling around the edge ill-defined - both indicators of poor moulds or bad attempts at artificial ageing of coins. The colour of fakes is also often more shiny and golden than the real thing. Some are lighter and thinner.

According to coin industry sources, the economics of producing counterfeit coins, as opposed to notes, make it necessary to produce large amounts to net any kind of decent profit. Technically, it is relatively simple to produce fakes using dies made from the real thing; some are made from hand moulds, some on machines. All that is needed is sufficient nickel and brass. The kind of people doing this, in their backrooms and workshops, are most likely to be traditional criminals and gangs - Charlie Kray, elder brother of the infamous twins, was long suspected by police in London of involvement in counterfeit coin rackets.

One coin expert told The Independent that he had heard that £100 worth of counterfeit coins were being sold on the black market for £80 and £1,000 for £800 and so forth. "I think they could cost around 50p to 75p to produce, so you have to produce an awful lot to make it worthwhile,'' said the expert, who added: "Frankly, if I get any, I just pass them on in my change, its not worth doing anything else.''

Which, according to the 1981 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act can lead to a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. although, crucially, the police have to prove an "intent" to pass on the counterfeit coin or note for gain.

But, partly because of this reluctance to report fakes, gauging the size of the problem is difficult. The Home Office does not keep individual figures for counterfeiting coins or notes, and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which in common with the Treasury and the Mint, seemed slightly reluctant to discuss the issue, said yesterday that, yes, they were aware of "an amount" of fake coins in circulation, but were unable, for operational reasons, to say if the problem was currently any worse or any better. "All cases should be reported to local police,'' said a spokeswoman.

The Mint, while suggesting that suspect fakes can to be taken to banks and thence to the police, could not help on the scale of the problem. The Treasury, while helpfully directing The Independent to the Mint's own 1 per cent estimate, could offer no advice to the public or comment on the impact on the economy. "No, I don't think we have anything to say on that,'' was the response.

So, lacking official guidance, The Independent attempted to establish how much the "just under 1 per cent'' figure actually accounts for. For that, it is necessary to calculate the total amount of pound coins issued by the Mint since 1983 - which, according to the Mint's own published figures, is at least 1,600,000,000. Of which 1 per cent is £16m. The Mint does caution that the figure is based on an unscientific survey and suggests that the real figure may be lower - but without offering any explanation why.

Unlike notes, coins do not deteriorate, and are therefore not normally taken out of circulation officially. Neither are they hoarded by pensioners and drug dealers in the way banknotes are. So, even allowing for storage and wastage, the vast majority of the coins must still be in circulation. Which suggests that the total amount of counterfeit coins in circulation could be at least £10m and possibly as much as £15m. Which, in anybody's money, is an awful lot of loose change.

CAN YOU SPOT THE COUNTERFEIT POUND?

The simplest way to spot a fake pound is to check that the design on the reverse corresponds with the official design for the year, which rotates between themes associated with England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole. The Royal Mint website contains details of the designs for each year: go to www.royalmint.com.

The design should be clear and precise; blurring or uneveness suggests a fake.

The Latin motto on the rim, often something like DECUS ET TUTAMEN [An ornament and a safeguard] should also match the year. The lettering on fakes may also be indistinct or unevenly spaced.

On the front, the Queen's head must be sufficiently proud above the surface, the features clearly defined and the stippling around the edge distinct.

Fake coins are often lighter, thinner and have a lighter, more golden-yellow colour than the real thing. So can you tell the fake? It's the pound coin on the left.