It takes one, powerful swing for the ‘enforcer’ to rend the door open with a dull, reverberating boom amid the sound of splintered wood and sheared metal. Office workers snaking through south east London in their cars, are aghast at what they see at 6.50am on a sleepy Wednesday morning outside a pub on one of the main arterial roads into the city centre. Police officers in full riot gear from one of the City of London’s territorial support groups now surge through the pub door, forlornly hanging on its hinges. The ‘enforcer’ is a heavy, metal battering ram which can deliver a blow equivalent to seven sledge hammers – the officer wielding it is the last one to sprint in the door.
Ten minutes before we drove down in a “carrier” (police van) from an early morning briefing session on the fourth floor at Bishopsgate police station. Sergeant John Brown and his men, all skilled at rapid entry techniques and hastily arranging their bullet proof vests and CS gas in the van, were perturbed at the lack of knowledge they had about their target location. “We don’t know much about it,” said the sergeant. “You never what you’re getting into on these jobs but especially this one.” They have only been told of the location at the last minute for security reasons.
For ten months officers led by Detective Paul Wright of the city’s Central Detective Unit have mounted a high-level investigation into what they believe is the biggest counterfeit currency operation ever to be found in the UK to date. Because millions are involved the investigation has been conducted on a top secret basis and many at the station have not been told about it. As Paul Wright, a thickset detective with a silver crop of short hair and moustache, formerly with the south east regional crime squad, had said at one of our meetings: “Unfortunately, lets face it there are leaks in the police force. It is done on a need to know basis.”
For months his crack squad of nine detectives, aided by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), have even slept in the office at times, sometimes working 24 hours a day, uncovering a complex ring of counterfeiters whose operation extends not only over the entire country but abroad too. Producing a cocktail of denominations from all around the world the detectives feel that millions upon millions have been produced over ten years or more.
At the briefing Inspector Kevin Moore had said, “We’re taking out the big people now – not the lower echelons.” Today two other similar raids will take place in London and a further two in Berkshire. But today at the pub is where they will take out the alleged mastermind and financier of the operation.
At the pub officers charge up three flights of stairs. All you can hear are muffled bellows of “Police! Police! ” as officers shout all the time to identify themselves. The stairs are laid with a dirty, dust-smeared turquoise carpet, the walls which were once pink, are now a dirty salmon grey. At the top in a bedroom lies an ashen faced man with his girlfriend in bed, now riven with fear, as successive officers their faces obscured by helmets, move in and order him to the floor. His girlfriend is speechless as she gathers a yellow duvet to her chest to protect her modesty. Dirty plates sit on an old fridge in the corner and an overturned wastebasket containing a crumpled JPS cigarette packet lies overturned on a filthy vinyl tiled floor.
The house is searched from top to bottom – each item sealed in evidence bags is painstakingly recorded in an evidence book. An old fireplace recently bricked up in the bedroom is knocked out using a steel “hooli” bar and all phone records, receipts, photographs, negatives and a curious mound of paper in the basement is taken away for further investigation. Yet the most interesting item is only a book found in the basement: ‘Practical Printing and Binding’ with a marker in the chapter about offest lithograpy – the printing method used for counterfeiting.
As the suspect is led away to a waiting unmarked car, there is no counterfeit currency or anything else more incriminating to be seized. Paul Wright is unfazed. “Well of course it would be nice to find something but with our intelligence we can now interview him and hopefully other finds will link him to our other evidence. The top people are too clever to have anything at their home addresses which would link them.”
Today 27 have now been arrested in connection with the counterfeiting operation, some before on previous raids. Yet it has just been another “day at the office” for the “Bishopsgate Gang” as the crack unit is warily known among counterfeiters. In the aftermath of the raid, which was part of operation Catacomb, £17m in counterfeit currency was recovered - 750 000 of that was in US dollars. Nine people were eventually sentenced to a total of 45 years. The Bishopsgate Gang had been working closely with other law enforcement agencies around the world, including the American Secret Service. They themselves had done an earlier raid and recovered $47 000.
Paul Wright’s team have laid waste to successive counterfeiting gangs with phenomenal success over the past few years. They have put some of the UK’s leading counterfeiters all put behind bars and counterfeiting in the UK, the European, if not the world centre for counterfeit currency, brought to its knees. No-one is quite sure how much is in circulation but according to the Bank of England it is less than 1%. But this may just be the calm before the storm.
The team and senior detectives at NCIS and Europol along with banks in Europe are bracing themselves for the biggest challenge they met yet face. The introduction of the Euro in January 2002 is a powder keg waiting to explode as Europe, many feel, will be swamped with counterfeit notes and a subsequent crime wave.
Derek Porter, head of the Forgery of Money Group at Europol in the Hague says it is causing enormous alarm. “There is an extremely well funded fear that with the Euro, a brand new currency coming to world-wide markets, counterfeiters have a massive opportunity for organised crime.” He adds: “While the politicians argue back and forth about whether they are going to go in or out the counterfeiters made a decision long ago to be there at the start.” Counterfeiters specifically look for new notes to be launched, which are unfamiliar to the public, in order to swamp ignorant punters with duff notes when they are unsure what a real one looks and feels like. As a detective at NCIS says, “For a while it will just be like Monopoly money – even bad counterfeits will get through.”
All over Europe, the mafia and other underworld groups have already started to launch daring raids to get their hands on the news notes. Despite European police using warships, helicopter gunships and an array of weaponry to deliver the notes to banks ready for January 1- nothing will stop criminals.
In the early hours of a warm, September morning this yearin the industrial town of Bari on the southern Italian coast, workers on the night shift had averted their eyes; half in fear, half in disbelief.
A gang of around ten men in bullet-proof vests, black ski masks and toting Kahlashnikovs and semi-automatic pistols were manoeuvring the arm of a crane over the wall of the local high-security postal depositry. A wrecking ball, normally used to demolish office blocks swayed menacingly, before drawn back amid a chug of black, diesel smoke. Once it was released it smashed a perimeter wall down in a cascade of rubble. The men then surged into a high security bunker overpowering two guards.
Within two minutes they loaded three four-wheeled drive vehicles with 80kg of cash. But the alarm had been raised and police and other guards swarmed into the area. As whooping police cars bore down, the gang of robbers threw spikes across the road, disabling a pursuing police car and blocking twenty others desperately trying to catch them.
They escaped and even Michael Caine from the Italian Job would have given a little murmur of respect and nod of the head for their cunning. They had effectively shattered the biggest European police operation ever. Recently the Italian police have been using fifty armoured trains and two hundred trucks while other European countries have been using specially trained police units backed by satellite surveillance, warships and helicopters to deliver new currency around Europe – some ten billion notes and fifty billion coins. What seems more astonishing is that the Italian gang, widely believed to be part of the Sacred United Crown mafia, planned their meticulous operation to only escape with around £3136 worth of currency. But their haul was worth far more than that to counterfeiters. They had escaped with Euros. Yet their plan was scuppered when they only escaped with coins – still able to be counterfeited – but it was probably notes they were after.
But it is the UK where problems are first expected to start. “The UK’s counterfeiters do it bigger and better than anyone else,” he explains. “The UK is one of the top countries for quality counterfeits and here we have one of the most professional approaches to the crime. In the rest of Europe criminals do it along with other things – here counterfeiters are specialist and that is all they do. The UK was a printing centre for the whole of Europe. In the late 80’s when the newspapers moved to Wapping and 1000’s lost their jobs when printing went automated - there were lots of very skilled printers out there with no jobs or money. I think around then counterfeiting rose by 300%.”
“Look these people don’t fuck abaht,” says Michael, his Cockney accent suddenly turning aggressively insistent and his features darkening. “They’ll shoot ya. If you drop out of a job half way through you better have a good place to hide for a very long time.” It is my second meeting with a man I only know as Michael. He recently got out of Brixton prison on a six year sentence for counterfeiting and is explaining his clientele during the years he claims to have pumped the UK’s economy with some £28 million worth of “snidey money” over several years.
The rules of our meetings over a couple of weeks in various pubs around the periphery of the city are clear. No real names, nothing used in this piece that would incriminate or identify him and always I was to be on my own when we met. He is a large man in his early fifties, his neatly parted hair flecked with grey, always dressed in freshly ironed jeans and Ralph Lauren shirts. He looks like an unassuming father dressed for a weekend of leisure rather than a man who has been in criminal enterprise with some of the most dangerous gangsters in London. He has produced some of the best counterfeit currency this country has seen. He puffs his chest out with pride as he describes how one of his notes is in the Bank of England’s museum as an example of a perfect forgery.
Yet violence was always around the corner in shady pub deals. “Once these blokes said they’d drop me off the top of a building unless I did a job for them - I refused,” he says. “We did work for some of the big families in London (the biggest criminal gangs are organised along family lines), I ain’t saying who though. They’d have a front man who would approach you and you would do the job, then you would get approached by someone else who you’d think was different but was really part of the same firm. Eventually when we did deals I had to have someone in the pub with me. If it got out of hand I’d tell them: ‘Look do you wanna carry on the conversation with my friend in the corner there?” He goes on to add ominously, “Round my way you can get someone done for £500 and I ain’t just talking about arms and legs either.”
Born with the sound of the “Bow Bells” Michael ran his own printing business in the East End. The offers of counterfeiting were always there. When his business ran into trouble and the lures of big money were too much to resist he started producing counterfeit for the East End villains he knew in the area and had grown up with. Most counterfeiters are not villains by trade, but printers as it is so specialist and skilled.
Over years Michael’s tight knit “crew” got so good at what they did they even had their own signature on forged notes. “Once Chris Tarrant was on the radio and he was getting out of his pram because someone at a petrol station had given him a snidey £20 note. He was going crazy saying that when you held it up to the light the watermark was different. We’d put the watermark on but given the Queen a little Benjamin Franklin beard on a few notes,” says Michael, now laughing raucously. “Yeah that was a buzz. I’ve been in pubs too before and been given one of my notes back in the change.” At other times it was like a scene from the Italian Job. “When we were at it word got back from a master forger in prison who had seen our work. He passed the word along, ‘Tell those boys to keep up the good work – they’re on the right track.’”
Michael and his term operated with the utmost security. As DS Paul Wright says, “These people work like us. They are as professional and organised. They are not just street toughs who will break your legs but very slick operators.” Michael would only use mobile phones, each member of the team would have a codename and any time transport was needed to carry notes or printing plates they would use a mini-cab firm. “We wanted to make it legit as possible and keep our faces out of the frame. The old bill have got eyes and ears everywhere,” he says, exhaling sharply.
Michael would charge around £40 000 for a million in currency. Buyers would often have to leave a deposit and Michael remembers one man who left his Rolex watch and £4 000. He was late for a rendezvous at a pub in Sussex to pick up his counterfeit. “He didn’t get it in the end – we couldn’t run the risk of hanging around with a million in currency in the back of the car.”
His dark skill is a complex one – needing a host of other skilled operatives to produce notes, normally £20’s and £10’s (£50’s arouse suspicion too easily these days)and a whole raft of foreign currency including Deutsmarks, Francs, Pesetas and Dollars. First a scan would be taken of a brand new note. Michael worked by buying favours from people in various parts of the industry. “Some of the people involved in this have got the money to get to anybody. Say there was a new style note coming out, well, you’d buy someone in the bank a nice little drink, get one of the notes and within hours it would be on a scanner and in production. Everybody has got problems and needs a few extra quid. You can get scans of dollars now off special sites on the internet for about £5000.”
The Bank of England uses specially milled paper to produce notes and as Michael says it is “easier breaking in there to get the real stuff than get hold of that.” But they would buy out people who worked in paper suppliers’ to get paper, although not exactly the same, would have the same weight. That done the scan of the note would be constantly retouched so that it was perfect. “The scanner would even pick up fly shit so we’d have to retouch the whole thing,” he explains. Serial numbers would be cut out and new ones substituted. “The dollar is the easiest note in the world to counterfeit. We would get $1 bills bleach the ink out of them and then reprint them as $100 bills. See, easy,” he says with a sly grin.
Michael holds up a note in the pub to show how he would get round the various security features. The watermark would be replicated on the notes in white or grey ink to give the impression that it was inside the paper when held up to the light. The notes, once printed would be sent to another ‘firm’ who had a hot foiling machine. This places the distinctive sliver strip on notes. On real ones it runs right through the note, with forgeries it is on top. “All this things were done to create an illusion – that is all,” says Michael. “It doesn’t matter what security features they bring out there are always people who will take it apart and find out how’s it done and find a way to recreate it.”
To add the final finishing touches: the raised printing of the Bank of England on the top of the note would be replicated by cutting out a raised template and then rubbing the top of the note with very fine sandpaper to cause a rough indentation. The chemicals used to make fake notes glare under UV lighting would be substituted by using hairsprays. “I won’t tell you what we used but it’s a common household product,” he says.
And before Michael would take samples to the pub to do a deal he would tear a few or write on them. “No-one questions a note that’s been a little torn or has writing on it,” he says. “But I’ve got to admit they were so good I had to mark them so I could tell them from real ones.” Finally he would put them in the tumble drier to make them look creased and worn, which brings a whole new literal phrase for the term money laundering.
To get rid of the vast amounts Michael was producing is a complicated business. A detective at NCIS says that those who normally buy counterfeit currency are normally involved in many other criminal enterprises. “Mostly it is a commodity criminals can deal in,” he says. “It is a well known fact that it is linked with drugs and used by people involved with firearms as well. If you sell heroin and other drugs you already have a ready-made distribution network to get rid of counterfeit currency.”
Large packets would be bought and split down to smaller ones each time they were sold on, rather like drugs. Those at the bottom of the huge distribution networks would charge £5 for a £20 and the price would rise the further away it got from Michael and his crew. If close to the counterfeiter notes could exchange hands for as little as 20p each.
Or large packets would be used for straight drug deals. There was never a temptation to spend the money himself, says Michael. “How are you gonna get rid of that sort of money?” He says that it was often used for drug deals. “One man I knew went abroad in his car with the boot stuffed full of it to pay for drugs. A drug merchant is not going to check every single note is he. When they find out its dodgy what can they do? Go to the police? Or it would be used in a straight deal. People would say ‘you give me X amount of drugs and I’ll give you x amount of dodgy counterfeit.’”
At the heart of the scam was to exchange counterfeit for legitimate currency. “Say someone worked in a bank they would be given five packets of £5000 in £20’s,” Michael explains. “He would go in and take out the good ones and put the dodgy ones in before he went home. They don’t check everyone coming out of the bank at all do they?” And big occasions would also make convenient times and places to get rid of large amounts of counterfeit. “On VE day people decided that was a good time to get rid of a parcel of counterfeit because there were lots of tourists about. They would get their change back and one of them would be a snidey.”
When Paul Wright and the Bishopsgate Gang concluded Operation Saxon, the distribution network they uncovered was operating all over Europe. Stools were sent out to Spain and Lanzarote with £2000 worth of Pesetas. They would spend the money there and then wire clean, legitimate money back through Western Union. Those at the bottom of the distribution chains would go into shops and say buy a disposable camera for a couple of pounds with a large denomination note – the change handed back would be legitimate currency. In the UK those wanting to get rid of counterfeit will go to stores like Marks and Spencers, buy ten suits and then return them four or five days later offering an excuse. The change, of course, will be legitimate currency.
Yet it is clear that counterfeiting doesn’t only touch the deep pockets of the Bank of England. Seventy year old pensioner John Brown in Manchester, (the name is a pseudonym as he doesn’t want to reveal his name as he is terrified of reprisals) lost £3000. Last December he posted an ad in his local paper for two 9 carat gold omega watches, family heirlooms, that he couldn’t wear any more because of crippling rheumatoid arthritis in his wrists. A man came round and paid £3000 to John in what he thought were £20 notes.
“Although I have had two cataract operations recently,” he says, “they were so good I couldn’t tell them apart from real ones.” Only later when John’s wife tried to pay the money in at the Post Office and they refused saying it was counterfeit was John made aware that he had been duped. “I then noticed that ink was coming off on my hands and some of the serial numbers were the same,” he says. “It ruined my Christmas and I feel terrible about it,” he laments. “I’m just a pensioner; £100 is a lot of money to me let alone £3000. We really needed that money. I think these people want locking up for life, it’s an offence against the crown, copying the Queens head like that. What is the Bank of England doing for people like us?”
A spokesperson for the Bank says new measures are constantly being introduced and a new £10 out in the Autumn will have micro-lettering and other features. “We have a rolling programme so that when new technology becomes available to thwart counterfeiters we can keep counterfeiters at a lower level than we already have.” As for the Euro; “As we are not going to be part of it, it is not really an issued for us.”
However, the European Central Bank is deeply worried and the Report on the Legal Protection of Banknotes in the European Union Member States in 1999 promised a whole raft of measures to combat counterfeiting. The report says the Euro looks likely to be heavily counterfeited. Yet the ECB has pledged to set up a database with the specific responsibility for gathering intelligence on new types of counterfeit Euros. Europol are waiting with baited breath.
Does Michael ever feel any sense of remorse for people like John Brown who have lost considerably large amounts of money that they can’t afford to lose? “Well,” says Michael draining his lager, “I have had pangs of conscience I must admit. Not that badly mind you, but especially when you’ve been had over yourself. But I never thought my money would be in general circulation. The only victims I thought were the banks and post offices – there was just a feeling among us that this was being coughed up by the country that’s all.”
The sense of foreboding about the Euro is already causing ripples among Michael’s associates. “Its all gone very quiet, suspiciously quiet” he says, ruminatively. “A few months back there was a buzz that something big was gonna happen. Maybe its the Euro.”