Can you fake it?

Read any newspaper and you would be forgiven for assuming that the UK was drowning in a sea of fake notes and dud coins. A recent article in The Times claimed that a national chain of pubs was refusing to accept £50 notes for fear of their being counterfeit.

Commentators have named the guilty parties as new technology such as colour photocopying which offers easy access to to the world of counterfeiting.

Organised and large-scale counterfeiting, the type of operation which the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) is specifically interested in, continues to use four-colour litho printing presses which may be used to turn out greetings cards during the day while producing fake bank-notes at night.

NCIS contains the National Office for the Suppression of Counterfeit Currency – the counterfeit currency unit which handles all forged currency seized in the UK.

If you discover a counterfeit note in your wallet or purse, you should hand it over to the police who in turn pass it to NCIS with details of when and where it was recovered. From these returns, NCIS is able to produce annual statistics on the level of counterfeiting – not just sterling but foreign currencies too. The most numerous of these is the US dollar, with $5.5 million recovered last year. We also identify new series of counterfeit notes, identify methods and link police operations against counterfeiters.

The past three years have seen an increase in the amount of sterling counterfeit notes, seized mainly from the retail trade, from £4.9 million in 1992 to £5.4 million in 1994. Increasingly, successful raids by police against counterfeiters, often working from intelligence supplied by NCIS, are taking out large amounts of counterfeit before it hits the street. In 1994, the figure was £11.8 million. The sums are large, but they still represent less than 0.1 per cent of all genuine notes in circulation.

Many people could prevent themselves becoming victims of this crime if they knew their banknotes. The Bank of England is running a campaign highlighting the new note designs and pointing out the key security features. Quality of paper and printing, the watermark and the counterfoil strip are elements of a genuine note which are seldom all successfully present in a fake note.

NCIS' counterfeit currency unit is expert in distinguishing fakes from the real thing. It comprises eight police officers and nine civil staff with officers concentrating on intelligence-gathering and development. The intelligence 'packages' – the product of their work – is passed on to operational teams, often from regional crime squads, who make arrests and seizures.

The unit's officers can only be called as expert witnesses for cases involving US dollars. This occurs several times a year and the officer may state whether the note is genuine or not, avoiding the need to go into detail about security features which may play into the hands of future counterfeiters. The unit's counterfeit specialists are trained by the FBI at the expense of the US government. With home-grown experts, there is no need to send forged notes for verification to the US.

Cases involving sterling and requiring expert witnesses will draw evidence from independent laboratories and the Bank of England whose officials may only state if the note is not genuine. Most cases do not require expert witnesses because the forgeries are so poor that there is no doubt about authenticity.

Undoubtedly, counterfeiting currency has been a growth industry but the level of police success with seizures is already looking to exceed that of 1994. The NCIS has played its part and will continue to do so showing that intelligence-led policing does yield results.