Master Forger Sentenced in the UK

Fascinating:

Magic fingers and an unerring eye gave "Hologram Tam," one of the best forgers in Europe, the skills to produce counterfeit banknotes so authentic that when he was arrested nearly £700,000 worth were in circulation.

Thomas McAnea, 58, who was jailed for six years and four months yesterday, was the kingpin of a professional operation based in Glasgow that, according to police, had the capacity to produce £2 million worth of fake notes a day ­ enough potentially tom destabilise the British economy. More may remain out there undetected.

[...]

"Some of Hologram Tam’s money is still out there. It’s that good that if I gave you one of his notes, you wouldn't know it," a police source said.

The detectives also found templates for other forgeries including passports, driving licences, ID cards, bank statements, utility bills, MoT certificates, postage and saving stamps and TV licences.

Posted on October 12, 2007 at 11:34 AM • 22 Comments

Comments

Florian LiekwegOctober 12, 2007 12:17 PM

Now it's only a matter of time until some politician takes this as an argument that biometric information should be put on ID cards. And RFID chips, because they're impossible to forge, right?

Carlo GrazianiOctober 12, 2007 12:48 PM

I can't help wondering whether cash itself isn't a little anachronistic at this point. Most of us seem to need it less and less as time goes on. Perhaps this means that to the extent that large-scale mint-grade forgery could "...potentially destabilize the economy", the problem will solve itself sooner rather than later.

NickoOctober 12, 2007 12:52 PM

"The detectives also found templates for other forgeries including ... utility bills"

I don't know what sort of utility bills they are talking about but magic fingers hardly seem necessary to forge most of the electricity and gas bills I get these days. Even the stubbiest, least co-ordinated fingers should be able to press the buttons on a modern multi-function printer/scanner!

Dave PageOctober 12, 2007 1:10 PM

The trouble with cash being anachronistic is that any non-cash replacement (such as the Oyster card in London which can be used for low-value purchases) loses the value of anonymity.

There are plenty of legal things that people may think twice about buying if they know that their purchases can be tracked - I've been put off buying copies of Applied Cryptography because I had to pre-order and pay by card, and don't want to be flagged up as a potential terrorist or paedophile by the Powers That Be...

Rich WilsonOctober 12, 2007 1:25 PM

@Bruce "Fascinating"

I sense a certain amount of professional admiration for a fellow hacker who takes great pride in his work.

comreichOctober 12, 2007 1:49 PM

This one got mentioned the other day on one of the gold analyst sites in reference to central banks and money printing. The comment was that this guy, even at maximum output, would have been diluting the value of the GBP by less than 1/100th of the amount that the British central bank was already doing on its own. Sounds like somebody just didn't want the extra competition.

BetaOctober 12, 2007 2:00 PM

Money is valuable because it is difficult to trace, and not just when buying something special.

Some police forces in the U.S. had a nice racket going for a while: if they caught you carrying lots of cash they'd take it, "test" it in another room, and confiscate it if it "tested positive" for traces of cocaine. You wouldn't be allowed to witness the test (which might consist of a drug-sniffing dog "reacting" to it), and had no real legal recourse since you weren't being arrested. Eventually a judge struck down this practice, noting that something like 30% of random notes from any bank have detectable traces of cocaine (it can spread from one note to another by rubbing, and it's astonishingly difficult to expunge).

If this were still going on then a note's value would depend on its history. If it were something simple like cocaine then it would be easy to test money before accepting it or handing it back ("I'm sorry officer, but we require cash that you can't confiscate from us..."). But what if it were a complete roster of everyone who had ever possessed it? Then the police might declare that all money that had passed through the hands of John Smith (or Simatoni or al-Simat) was confiscatable. Then we'd have to pore over every note, considering not only whether a name had been blacklisted, but whether it seemed likely to be blacklisted in the future.

"...'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands...

dragonfrogOctober 12, 2007 2:15 PM

I find the figures mentioned amusing - he has a shop that's supposed to be able to produce 2 million pounds a day, and there "may" be more than 700 thousand in circulation?

Surely it's a given that he'd done more than a day's worth of work before he was caught. He was caught once before with 1.6 million. I'd expect that the amount of his money in circulation would be at least a couple of orders of magnitude more than they're estimating there...

AnonymousOctober 12, 2007 2:31 PM

2 million a day? That's 730 million quid per year - THAT is enough to destabilise the UK economy? Fearmongering at its worst, I say.

NostromoOctober 12, 2007 3:22 PM

"£2 million worth of fake notes a day - ­ enough potentially to destabilise the British economy"

The financial cost of the blunders by Prime Minister John Major and Chancellor Norman Lamont in September 1992 has been estimated ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Wednesday ) at about £3.4 BILLION. This guy's £2M/day is negligible.
Of course he still deserves his 6-year sentence. He'd have been put away for a lot longer in the US.

SteveJOctober 12, 2007 5:09 PM

Government blunders costing 3.4bn on paper don't actually result in .17bn twenty pound notes hitting the streets, though. The effect is different (not necessarily better or worse, but different). Unexpected cash simply isn't the same thing as an exchange rate crunch.

And I think it can be fairly said that Black Wednesday did "destabilise" the British economy. It didn't sink it, obviously.

So I don't think the claim (that 2M in cash per day would destabilise the economy) can be quite so easily dismissed, as by saying "some other bad thing happened, with a bigger number involved, and we're all still here to tell the tale".

What can be dismissed is the claim that the place had any meaningful capacity to produce 2M in cash per day. If only 700,000 quid is in circulation, clearly he either didn't have the capacity to produce 2M per day, or didn't have the capacity to dispose of 2M per day. Or doesn't want to be rich. Whatever the case, the money supply is a lot safer than the police press office is trying to pretend.

antonOctober 12, 2007 5:48 PM

"£2 million worth of fake notes a day - enough potentially to destabilise the British economy"

Notwithstanding the volume required to have an impact on the economy, why the intrinsic assumption that it would destabilise the economy, the effect might just as well be the other way around, that it could be a stabilizing factor!

Squeezing cash has always been a capitalists way of keeping money out of the poor mans hands.

dragonfrogOctober 12, 2007 5:56 PM

@SteveJ
"Whatever the case, the money supply is a lot safer than the police press office is trying to pretend."

Or less so - It may be that he lacked the capacity to produce and disperse 2M/day. It may also be that much more than 700K of his work is in circulation. My guess is both are true.

At a guess, the hard part would be profitably distributing 2M/day in phony notes without quickly attracting heat. Sure, you can print that much, but at a certain point you're going to be distibuting at such sharply discounted rates that you make next to no additional profit by increasing production.

Even 100K/day seems to me a lot of money to try to silently inject into the economy. But maybe I lack the appropriate level of fiscal deviousness to mastermind a forgery ring...

Peter E RetepOctober 12, 2007 7:03 PM

Recall Fidel Castro's $20 bills printing project begun before Watergate?
Continued at least through Clinton?
And North Korea's printing presses printing US currency?

Like many things before, what was available on monopoly is becoming a distributed capability.

David DonahueOctober 13, 2007 1:50 AM

Am I the only one to read this article and think the follow-up story was

"Royal pardon issued for master forger."

"Strange", said the UK Home Secretary, "I don't recall this case coming through the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but all the signatures are clearly there and of course we exist to carry out the directions of Her Majesty, the Queen. Perhaps my memory isn't what it used to be..."

dbOctober 13, 2007 3:25 PM

The UK has 3% inflation so the government that jailed him is printing tens of thousands of times more phony money than he did.

SteveJOctober 14, 2007 9:41 AM

"the government that jailed him is printing tens of thousands of times more phony money"

In the same sense that the government which required ID checks when buying cop uniforms, in Bruce's post earlier this week, is "imitating" tens of thousands more cops than criminals are.

Kadin2048October 14, 2007 11:09 PM

It's worth pointing out every time there's a case of counterfeiting, that it's within our grasp to create money that's *both* difficult to forge but also anonymous, via PK crypto. Anonymity and authenticity (forge-resistance) are not mutually exclusive.

However, there are a whole lot of people who would like to see cash money go the way of the dodo and replace it with debit card systems like Oyster or SpeedPass that aren't anonymous. Aside from those who want this for nefarious political ends, there are some well-meaning people who are under the mistaken belief that there's no way to accomplish financial transactions anonymously, or that "anonymity is the enemy of finance" and other hogwash.

The problem is the usual one with encryption vs. centralized government control: how do you convince the average law-abiding person that an anonymous system is in their best interest, even if they lead such a frightfully boring life that they don't care about anyone knowing what they buy? It's a tough sell.

SteveJOctober 15, 2007 6:27 AM

Oyster isn't anonymous, but it is pseudonymous. I have an Oyster card which, as far as I know, is not connected with my name. I bought it with cash, declined to provide my name and addresss, I credit it with cash and I've never used the "manage your card online" site (although I suspect I could "safely" do so via Tor or whatever).

So, the system can tell that all those journeys were made with the same card, but can't tell who made them. There is nothing to stop me getting additional cards in order to compartmentalise my use, or lending or exchanging my card with others. There is no proof whether I have already done so.

Of course it's possible that I have been IDed via CCTV and connected to my card that way, but if someone is willing to do that, then they could do it even if I used cash for each journey. I'm only trying to keep my Oyster card "clean" as an experiment, but I think that the scheme's claim of "anonymity" (by which they really mean "pseudonymity" since the card has a serial number) does stand up to some degree.

bobOctober 15, 2007 7:01 AM

"Some of Hologram Tam’s money is still out there. It’s that good that if I gave you one of his notes, you wouldn't know it," a police source said.

Well, duh! If you could tell it was fake you wouldnt accept it!

AnonymousOctober 18, 2007 7:41 AM

"Oyster isn't anonymous, but it is pseudonymous. I have an Oyster card which, as far as I know, is not connected with my name. I bought it with cash, declined to provide my name and addresss, I credit it with cash and I've never used the "manage your card online" site (although I suspect I could "safely" do so via Tor or whatever)."

There's nothing stopping someone really motivated from obtaining your Oyster pseudonym (torture, blackmail, bribe... use your imagination). After that, your past purchases are not secret anymore.

Just my $0.15

TOWCHNovember 7, 2007 3:05 PM

As mentioned: the bottleneck in counterfeiting is passing the notes once they are produced, not making them in the first place.

The "magic fingers" part is obviously dumbing things down for the audience, but anyone who thinks this guy was producing $2 million worth of notes on an army of injet and laser printers is dreaming. With that output capability: he bought a printing business and used a printing press.

Counterfeits can destabalize economies by slowing productivity and discouraging use of the money. The famous case of the Canadian $20s a couple years back had stores refusing to take $20s.

When bills begin to get refused, suddenly, customers are getting turned away because their money is no good.

Purchases that otherwise would have happened don't.

False alarms go up wasting police resources.

A small fraction of a currency being counterfeit damages the consumer's confidence in the currency and it stops serving it's purpose.

I'm curious about the fake hologram and the paper in particular. Did he take enough pride in his work to bother duplicating the microprinting? How was the quality of the fluorescent security printing?

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