This summer millions of visitors will spend their holidays in one of the European Union's euro-zone countries -- such as Greece, Italy, Spain, or France. Many of these holidaymakers will be seeing and using euros for the first time. Experts say this is a perfect opportunity for counterfeiters, who prey on newcomers' trust and ignorance. The European Central Bank says euro counterfeiting this year is on the rise, though the number of fake notes in circulation is still small. Officials say travelers should take time to learn the euro's security features and never try to pass on any fake notes that they might get.
Prague, 29 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The summer holiday season in Europe is traditionally the most active period for counterfeiters. And evidence suggests this summer is no exception.
Already, reports say merchants in popular holiday destinations like Greece are busy installing special scanning machines to detect fake euros. They say that compared to last summer, this year they are seeing more fakes -- in denominations as low as five-euro notes.
The problem is made worse by the newness of the euro -- which has been circulating for just a year and a half. Many travelers to euro-zone countries this summer will be seeing and using euros for the first time.
Allister McCullam, a counterfeiting expert at the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt, confirmed that the number of fake notes is rising. "In comparison to last year, the numbers have gone up this year," he said. "But then last year, the euro was a brand-new currency and it's taken a little bit of time for the counterfeiters to get around to reproducing the new currency."
The ECB is charged with issuing and protecting the currency for the 12 European Union countries where the euro circulates. The euro is also used in parts of the former Yugoslavia where the German mark was previously in circulation.
McCullam said in spite of the increase, the incidence of forgery is still relatively rare. In fact, he told RFE/RL, the problem of counterfeiting was more serious with the former national currencies -- such as the mark -- that the euro replaced. "But, although as I say there has been an increase [in counterfeiting], we are still seeing -- overall throughout the euro area -- a lower level of counterfeiting than had previously existed with the [former national] currencies," McCullam said.
Officials rely on a number of security features in the notes to allow merchants and citizens to readily distinguish good euros from bad. These include watermarks, holograms, and ultraviolet-light markings, as well as special ink, paper, and raised lettering.
McCullam said with some knowledge and a little practice, anyone can learn to detect false notes. "You don't need to have any specialized equipment. All you need is your eyes and your fingers and a little bit of common sense, and you can spot the vast majority of counterfeits," he said.
Nevertheless, police say the fake notes are becoming more sophisticated -- and harder to detect. The first counterfeits were crude copies meant to capitalize on people's ignorance. Increasingly, forgers are using advanced computer technologies, including scanners and ink-jet printers.
AP this month quoted the head of criminal laboratories in Greece, Stratos Kyriakakis, as saying many fakes now include watermarks and security threads that can stand up to casual examination. He said, however, that even the best forgeries cannot duplicate the euro's color-shifting ink and raised lettering.
European police in recent weeks have announced a series of raids to shut down the counterfeiters. Europol, which collects intelligence on euro forgeries, says its member police departments this year have shut down 12 illegal euro print shops, including two outside the euro-zone.
Europol and Interpol, which also fights counterfeiting, declined to comment. But Europol's website (http://www.europol.eu.int) identifies Bulgaria, Poland, and Serbia and Montenegro as countries where print shops or counterfeiting networks operate.
Experts advise that anyone receiving a fake note should resist the temptation to try to pass it along further. Under the law, anyone who knowingly tries to use a counterfeit bill is technically guilty of counterfeiting himself.
"Unfortunately, if you are in that situation -- if you realize you've got [a fake euro] and it's too late to refuse it, as it were -- the best thing to do is to hand it into the police and try and give them as much detail as possible [about how you got it]," the ECB's McCullam said.
He said counterfeiters most often falsify the 50-euro note, though bogus 5- and 200-euro notes are also popular.