Uncovering the Underworld: The Rampant Spread of Forged Stamps in the UK Despite Barcodes Designed to Stop Them

    Royal Mail’s Transition to Barcoded Stamps: A Failed Attempt at Enhanced Security

    Royal Mail

    Last year, Royal Mail, the British postal and courier service, made the switch from traditional paper stamps to 2D data matrix barcoded stamps. The motive behind this move was to improve security, prevent stamp reuse, and deter forgeries. However, as it turns out, the barcode system has failed to fulfill its intended purpose.

    Recently, several senders were shocked when their mail was returned with a £5 fine for using “counterfeit stamps.” These senders insist that they had purchased legitimate stamps, but the postal provider claims otherwise.

    China’s Suspected Involvement

    In 2023, Royal Mail initiated a program called “Swap Out,” which allowed customers to replace their old paper stamps with the new barcoded stamps free of charge. The program was supposed to educate the public about the transition before it was made mandatory by the end of July 2023.

    Royal Mail transitions to barcoded stamps
    ‘Swap Out’ program exchanged regular stamps with barcoded ones at no cost
    (Royal Mail)

    According to Royal Mail, this switch to barcoded stamps would allow for operational efficiencies, added security features, and innovative services for customers. However, the seemingly enhanced security features have already proved to be inadequate, as hundreds of mail items were returned last month with a “£5 penalty” notice for the use of “counterfeit stamps.”

    Upon investigation, it was found that four major Chinese suppliers were offering to print up to one million forged Royal Mail stamps every week at a low cost and with quick delivery. This revelation has sparked a diplomatic row between the UK and China, with Chinese officials denying any involvement and suggesting that Royal Mail should look into their own supply chains.

    Royal Mail’s Blame Game

    Royal Mail has blamed the UK Border Force for failing to detect the counterfeit stamps. However, this accusation is questionable considering the simplicity of the product. It is difficult for conventional screening methods to distinguish between stamps, letters, or documents as stamps are simply sheets of paper.

    Although Royal Mail claims to have “overly sensitive” machines that can mistakenly flag genuine stamps as fake, human experts are responsible for thoroughly inspecting flagged mail items. It has also come to light that the penalized customers had purchased these “counterfeit stamps” from Post Office branches, not Royal Mail itself.

    Post Office often partners with Royal Mail to provide a variety of mail and collection services, but it is a separate commercial entity. Post Office has also reiterated that they receive their stamps directly from Royal Mail’s secure printers.

    The Post Office’s spokesperson expressed serious concerns over the allegations and stated that any customer who claims to have purchased fake stamps from a Post Office must provide a receipt so that the matter can be investigated further.

    Privacy Concerns Ignored

    Surprisingly, the transition to barcoded stamps went largely unnoticed by privacy groups. Along with improved security, these digitalized stamps also came with a feature that allowed senders to attach videos using their smartphones, which recipients could then watch by scanning the stamp with their phone. However, no one raised concerns about the potential invasion of privacy or the end of anonymous mail.

    We tested several of these new stamps last year and discovered each had a unique string identifier stored in the data matrix barcode. However, when asked, Royal Mail assured us that the stamps do not provide public-facing tracking and that no personal data is held within the stamp itself. Nevertheless, this does not guarantee that the unique identifier cannot be linked to a sender’s identity through other means, such as digital payment methods or attached videos.

    The introduction of forged stamps in the UK has rendered the benefits of barcoded stamps obsolete. The security measures intended to prevent stamp reuse and forgeries have proved to be inadequate and only caused inconvenience and penalties for legitimate stamp users.

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