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Top Cops Meet in Bulgaria To Combat Counterfeiting

Experts from 12 European countries and Europol, Europe's police agency, are gathering this week in Bulgaria to combat currency counterfeiting, which investigators have described as a major threat to Europe's economy.


There's something fishy about a lot of the euros in circulation.

Once the center of counterfeiting, Europol Director Jürgen Storbeck on Wednesday praised Bulgaria at the conference for a dramatic transformation that has made it the hub of the fight against counterfeiters. Still, Storbeck warned, counterfeiters pose a grave threat.

"The criminals are making great progress," he said. "They counterfeit dollar and euro bills, credit cards, traveler checks, they threaten our whole economic system."

The EU's decision to select Sofia for the meeting of ministers and investigators from across Central and Eastern Europe was no coincidence. During its era of Communist rule, Bulgaria had a highly advanced printing industry. After the fall of Communism, many trained workers in the sector lost their jobs and instead turned to counterfeiting to earn, or rather forge, their keep.

A Europe-wide problem

Most of the counterfeit dough made its way into richer central European countries, and now investigators all over Europe are trying to slow the spread by banding together resources to combat organized crime groups. The effort includes international agencies like Interpol and Europol, as well as their southeastern colleagues at SECI, which is located in Bucharest, Rumania.

"Now we are focusing on the investigations regarding counterfeited euros, U.S. dollars and, of course, our national currencies," said SECI Director Ferencz Banfi. "We recently recognized that it is a growing problem -- the payment card related crimes, stolen access codes, reproducing cards. It is actually not a big problem in southeast Europe, but it is creating tremendous damages in Western Europe."

Using fake passports and forged visas, middlemen carry the forged notes to Germany and Austria, where it is used to buy cars or changed into legitimate currency through purchases at small shops.

Convincing imposters

The counterfeit notes have gotten so good, in fact, that many experts can no longer tell the real from the fake. Every authentic euro is supposed to be identifiable -- it's printed on special paper, includes a serial number and changes colors when you turn it. But counterfeiters have become so sophisticated that they can even replicate the most-advanced security features.

Even the special pens and lamps designed for testing the authenticity of euros and special lamps are no longer sufficient for sniffing out good fakes. Indeed, the only experts who can, without any doubt, ferret out forgeries are the experts at central banks, who are schooled in highly classified euro security traits that have not been shared publicly.

But central banks are aware of the problem. Banks are required to regularly turn their cash over to a central bank for testing, at which point cash that has been tested and determined to be legitimate is returned. More and more central banks are reporting the discovery of counterfeit euros.

"A massive increase"

"Last year, Europe witnessed a massive increase in the distribution of counterfeit euros of frightening excellence in quality," said Günter Beckstein, interior minister of the German state of Bavaria, told the conference.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski said police in his country had seized more than $3.6 million in counterfeit euro bills during the last three years.

Part of the problem is that there have been few international solutions to a crime that seeps through porous borders. At a similar conference in Vienna last year, the countries attending called for the creation of a list of joint measures to be taken to combat counterfeiting.

"It included legal measures, from the creation of offices to combat counterfeiting, to educational measures in the countries most-affected, data exchange, a role for Europol and a role for the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) all the way up to the fighting of fake euros," said Erich Zwettler of the Austrian Office of Criminal Investigation. "The statement in Vienna did achieve quite a bit, not least of all by establishing a network of anti-counterfeiting investigators."

The results of the Vienna agreement are already tangible. In recent months, 24 illegal counterfeit production facilities have been shut down in Bulgaria alone, and 17,000 forged banknotes have been seized.

Cooperation between police agencies has also improved and many countries are passing stricter anti-counterfeiting laws. And those successes have helped make the proceedings this week more optimistic.

"We have busted more than 30 organized criminal groups dealing with counterfeit money production and distribution," Saxcoburggotski said.

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  • Date 24.06.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5Dnd
  • Date 24.06.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5Dnd