A gang of five Albanian criminals who forged thousands of passports and identity cards from their base in a North London flat was sentenced to a total 21 years in prison on 17 December. On the face of it, this crime might not seem to have anything to do with IT resellers, but according to the Metropolitan Police this is far from the truth.
Last April, Met officers from Operation Hornblende executed a search warrant in the Enfield, uncovering over 2,000 phony passports, identity cards and National Insurance cards. The kit included printers, stamps, metallic strips, embossers and holograms.
Organised crime business
Detective chief inspector Nick Downing says that ID forgery, like any organised crime needs legitimate businesses to realise its own profits – in this case including diverse print and stationery vendors and resellers, as well as purveyors of more specialised kit.
“We need members of the printing industry to continue to come forward and agree to help us. There are potentially thousands of companies – small, medium and large – that sell these products,” he said.
Downing says the Met’s two-year-old Project Genesius [p1, CRN 1 February 2010] wants to prevent the sale of kit to the wrong people. Part of it is about educating the industry on ways that counterfeiters set up their illegal businesses so law-abiding players can recognise suspect activity.
The use of phony ID is widespread across the UK and helps hide various illegal and dangerous activities, including human trafficking, international terrorism, immigration violations, and banking fraud. Hundreds of thousands of false ID documents have been seized in London in recent years.
“We could be raiding a factory a day, if we had the resources,” Downing says.
Print industry members that sign up to the Genesius code of conduct agree not to sell products or services to people who may be engaged in illegal activity and to alert the police if they are approached by such people. Potential counterfeiters may want items delivered to a different address or a residential address, and may also insist on cash-only terms.
They are less likely to quibble about price, and they may not want an invoice. They may not have a company name, and they may want to collect product in person – even for quite large items.
Ninety organisations have joined Genesius, but the Met would like many more on board. Some resellers might only sell one or two of the right sort of printers a year – but that is more than enough for a gang to set up a factory, Downing says.
“If this doesn’t work, the Government will legislate,” he adds. “That is likely to happen soon.”
Suppliers who sold products on to gangs could already in some cases be prosecuted under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. However, the police do not want to punish suppliers but work with them instead to combat crime, Downing says.
Maintain correct and proper records
Companies that sign up must agree to maintain and retain correct and proper records of all transactions, for both UK and overseas customers. They must profile each new customer according to suggested criteria, and if there are any doubts about the customer or the use of the sold equipment, it must not be supplied.
Signatories include the Rubber Stamp Manufacturers Guild, manufacturer Plastic Card Design Services, card solution provider Payne Security, biometric security firm Photobase, ID system and printer reseller Securit World, mailroom software and system provider Böwe Group, and rugged-IT designer Blazepoint.
Forgers do not need particularly sophisticated pieces of equipment to make f alse passports. There is a massive market for European Union documents like passports and driver licences that -- although they may not replicate the latest security specifications -- will nonetheless pass muster in the street, if proffered in a doctor’s surgery or for visual inspection by a bobby.
“How many officers or bank clerks would be able to pick out a counterfeit Lithuanian driver’s licence?” Downing says.
It was impossible to ensure all staff in all the sectors concerned had sufficient training and the equipment to pick up all possible fakes when they were presented. The best approach was therefore to make it difficult for them to make fakes in the first place.
High-quality passports that would pass an inspection at national entry points like Heathrow, can fetch £1,000 on the black market. Poorer-quality fakes are worth around £500.
Abdi Ali, a 29-year-old gang member convicted following Operation Hornblende, admitted to Wood Green Crown Court that he ordered counterfeit UK driving licences to be made for £40-£50 each, selling them on for £80-£100 each.
According to Downing, many such factories are found in homes. One example was the Portuguese-passport forgery factory that was found in a Brazilian family’s cellar in London.
“This was quite specific manufacturing of false passports. And they weren’t just being finished but manufactured [from scratch], with the covers ready to go,” Downing says.
“They had the gold papers to process on top of the passports, and they had cuttings of photos, with the photos to sign and put into the passports. That takes someone with a high level of expertise.”
The enlargement of the European Union means many more types of identity documents had become popular with counterfeiters.
“If you have an EU passport or driver’s licence, you can easily take advantage of a host of services without your status being checked further,” Downing says.
Factory above a chicken shop
Another swoop netted £100,000-worth of IT and other equipment that can be used in counterfeiting, as well as 20,000 blank National Insurance cards, in a factory above a chicken shop on Brixton High Street.
“That certainly sent the message to me that we have a problem here. We found someone in this operation who was a regular employee of a company, not only serving this operation but 10 other factories across the UK,” Downing says. “And we would just love to know who supplies those blank National Insurance cards.”
A gang may use one house for a base for a batch of several thousand documents then move on to another house in a bid to avoid detection.
A lot of supply is online, but also the High Street needs to monitor who is shopping and for what purpose. That can be tricky when using Saturday part-time or junior staff, Downing concedes.
Since gangs can and do move operations abroad, the Met is also setting up operational partners in other countries, with the US, France, and Italy as well as organisations such as Interpol, showing interest in adopting Project Genesius or a local version of it.
James Kight, director at reseller Printerland, says that a code-of-conduct approach sounds like a good way to go.
“Yes, on the face of it, it sounds like a good thing,” Kight says.
Cameron Mitchell, managing director at Printware, agrees: “I am sure there is a massive underground for that sort of thing. Although I kind of think they will find a printer from somewhere.”
Mitchell says if police get the resources to follow up sufficient numbers of leads it could work well and Printware would be happy to join up. Printware’s team are already quite aware when it comes to fraud and security checks – partly as result of having been a victim itself last year.
“We get some 500 brand new customers a month, as a result of search engine optimisation and such, a mix of business and private customers … and we already profile them, for our own more selfish reasons,” Mitchell says.
A January report from the National Fraud Authority (NFA) suggests that fraud of various kinds cost the UK £30bn in 2008. Public sector losses were believed to account for 58 per cent of all fraud loss. Benefit fraud accounted for £1.1bn in total, and NHS fraud £263 million.
“Fraud is difficult to expose and to measure,” the report said. “The measurement does not take into account the costs of preventing and responding to fraud, nor does it attempt to quantify the indirect financial costs of fraud, such as changes in behaviour resulting from the threat of fraud.”
Fraud prevention group CIFAs says that identity fraud – including identity theft – is on the rise, with 77,600 cases recorded in 2008, up from 9,000 in 1999. It cost the UK £1.2bn a year, according to the Identity Fraud Steering Committee in 2008.
Print peripherals return to growth
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