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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK

Business: Your Money

An old money-making scam

The new £20 has extra features to deter forgers

Forget working overtime or robbing the bank - for get-rich-quick merchants, the easiest way is simply to make money - literally.

Ever since notes as a currency were invented, people have been trying to forge them.

In the 19th century, counterfeiting cash became a capital offence, and dozens of people were hanged for it.

Back in 1797, the Pitt government feared an invasion by Napoleon's armies - and a consequent run on scarce gold reserves. So ministers withdrew the wording of "promise to pay the bearer" from £5 and £10 notes - effectively rendering them useless.

[ image: People have no redress if they find forgeries in their change]
People have no redress if they find forgeries in their change
It led to the invention of the £1 note, which sparked a fresh wave of counterfeiting.

A metallic thread was introduced into notes in 1940, in an attempt to deter Nazi-inspired forgeries.

Faking money has become harder over the years as more deterrent features have been introduced. You would need to copy all the features such as the metallic strip and the watermark, not to mention accurately reproducing details such as the pictures and colouring.

But there are still plenty of con artists willing to have a try.

The designs for the new UK £20 note, featuring Elgar's bristly moustache, were drawn up after police foiled a plan to flood Britain with forgeries worth millions of pounds.

Giant forgery gangs

A gang of five men was arrested in 1997 at Erith, Kent. At the home of one member, detectives recovered enough paper to produce £20 notes worth more than £2m. At another, they found a box containing printing plates and film negatives.

The printed paper they seized included the silver strip which was famously introduced to stop counterfeiting.

Last March, the ringleaders of a giant forgery scam in Scotland - which could have posed a threat to the entire UK economy - were jailed.

The counterfeiters had managed to flood the black market with thousands of fake £5 notes. When police swooped on their factory they were gearing up to produce £1m worth of notes every two hours.

Meanwhile, police sources have said that the Italian mafia has printed millions of counterfeit euro banknotes.

Detectives fear criminal gangs are stockpiling huge numbers of euros in order to flood the currency markets when the notes are officially brought into circulation in 2002.

Fewer seizures

The National Criminal Intelligence Service has the job of trying to smash forgery gangs and prevent fake currency hitting the streets.

NCIS officers use undercover methods and inventive detective work to gather information.

Seizures have dropped from £9m in 1997 to £6.1m last year. The NCIS cites this as proof that their methods are paying off.

But it is hard to tell whether this is true.

The amount of fake currency in circulation could actually be rising, as fewer seizures could mean that fewer fakes are being traced.

But spokeswoman Gail Kent insists: "We put the decrease down to better policing and more efficient law enforcement."

She said the chances of a member of the public falling prey to forgers is very small - the counterfeits make up a fraction of 1% of all the currency in circulation in the UK, estimated at £18bn.

Public plea

Nonetheless, the public should also be alert to forgeries, says NCIS, both to help fight counterfeit crime and because they have no redress if they find a fake in their change.

The paper is a key clue.

"The one thing the counterfeiters can't get accurate is the feel of the paper. It's very distinctive, quite unlike ordinary paper," says Gail Kent.

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