The Counter Counterfeit Force
Superintendent Laurent Sartorius explained that the Central Anti-Counterfeiting Office of the Belgian Federal Police unites two sub-divisions, the Central Document Fraud Office and the National Central Office for the suppression of counterfeit currency (NCO), with a total of about 20 officers.
While just about every EU national police force has a NCO, Belgium is a little unusual in that the Central Document Fraud Office is attached to the Belgian Federal Police, rather than border protection agencies as in most EU countries.
Banknote counterfeiting - a persistent headache
Historically, in most countries, counterfeiting of banknotes was met with very severe punishment because such crime had the potential to severely disrupt or even destroy a national economy. With the emergence of electronic bank transfers, credit cards etc., this threat has been greatly diminished.
Consequently, although punishment is officially still severe, culprits are commonly given minimum rather than maximum sentences. But banknote counterfeiting is only in relatively few cases a crime of opportunity. More often than not, it is a complex and organised criminal activity.
Belgium, as Superintendent Sartorius points out, has a rather high incidence of counterfeit banknotes recovered relative to the number of inhabitants. This does not mean that there are more counterfeits in circulation in Belgium than in other EU countries, but that the cash cycle is very efficient in detecting these notes, of which an estimated 80 per cent are printed in offset while another 20 per cent are opportunistic counterfeits in laser or inkjet printing.
There is very close co-operation between the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) and the Belgian Federal Police's Central Anti-Counterfeiting Office, with part of the unit physically working in the NBB premises. This enables every counterfeit to be examined and classified as to origin, technique and material used etc., giving the police in the field valuable information of what to look for.
If it is found, for instance, that a counterfeit originated in the Naples area of Italy or Bulgaria, the field operational unit will not need to look for a manufacturing site in Belgium but concentrate instead on finding the middleman or distributor.
About 85 per cent of counterfeits are detected within the banking operation and only 15 per cent outside of it. This means that the large majority do what the counterfeiters aim for: they circulate before ending their life cycle - probably only a few weeks long - at the bank’s sorting machines. Those detected outside the banking system have a shorter life still, perhaps only a few hours or days.
This points to the need to educate cash handlers as well as the public to detect counterfeits. Machine-readable features checked by the banking system are, of course, the final end of any counterfeit. But they come into force only after maximum damage has been done.
Although most counterfeits detected in Belgium are euro notes - the €20 and €50 are the most common - their diverse origins make this business totally international. Close co-ordination between national police units is therefore highly important.
For euro counterfeits and within the EU, this co-ordination role is played by Europol. For non-euro counterfeits and operations outside the EU, Interpol often acts as the co-ordinator.
Fighting counterfeit banknotes before they reach the public has become more difficult - and international - since the advent of the Internet. Criminals can now order material such as security foils online or buy entire consignments of fake notes through the Darknet, cutting out whole risk segments.
In consequence, it has become as important for law enforcement to attack the supply and distribution chain of counterfeits, as it is for central banks to make the notes difficult to counterfeit.
Passport and ID fraud - urgent and complex
The relentless flood of refugees fleeing war and terrorism, and the almost equally relentless fear of terrorism in our midst, have moved the question of passport and ID fraud into the public conscience, especially in Belgium. Such fraud is even more complex than banknote counterfeiting, explains Superintendent Sartorius.
A banknote is either genuine or counterfeit. And, in the case of the euro, there are only seven notes that can be counterfeited. The number of passports and ID documents that can be falsified is almost beyond counting. A false passport or ID card is very rarely a complete counterfeit. It is more likely a genuine document that has been altered, a stolen blank document fraudulently personalised, a genuine document used by a look-alike, or a genuine document fraudulently obtained on the basis of false breeder documents or declarations.
For travel within the Schengen area, ID cards and passports are equally useful, but the former are a little less difficult to forge. Criminals, for example, attack standard polycarbonate ID cards with security features on the front from the back, by shaving the body down to a thin layer that includes all the security features protecting the personal information.
The embedded chip is destroyed in the process, but is not read at normal police checks and a genuine ID card with a non-functioning chip is not automatically invalid. Having arrived at a thin plastic front layer, they then insert a sheet with the new personal information, photo, secondary photo and machine-readable zone on the back and seal it with a new, clear polycarbonate layer. The process is not perfect yet will fool most casual observers.
The extraordinarily high level of technical security of modern passports and ID cards means that criminals increasingly target the ‘issuing chain’ instead of physically altering them, by supplying easier-to-forge source documents to obtain genuine ID cards or passports.
Belgium, Superintendent Sartorius explained, is fortunate in having a very complete national register that can be searched by the police and includes all relevant information about a citizen or resident , e.g. name, date and place of birth, present and past addresses. This makes introducing false source documents much more difficult.
Such civil registers are not universal, even within the EU or Schengen area. Where they do exist, they may be local or regional and therefore not centrally searchable, making verification of an ID document more difficult. There are, of course, concerns about privacy. But strict and definitive regulation about who can search what can alleviate some of these.
Superintendent Sartorius thinks that the number and kinds of security features on most modern EU passports are sufficient to deter forgers, although regular updates make sense given that that criminals continue to learn and adapt.
Excellent design and brilliant security features no longer are the full answer to ID and passport fraud. Still, it makes sense for countries that have passports below current high levels of security to update them. And it seems just as, if not more so, important to close all weak points in the issuing chain before adding new technological marvels to passports and ID cards.
Those that have nothing
This leaves the question of what to do with refugees that arrive without any ID documents or have thrown these away to disguise where they came from, in an attempt to ease their acceptation as genuinely deserving cases.
The identification data given in such cases has to be taken at face value, whether genuine or false. And it needs to be combined with a fingerprint or other biometric feature to link the person to a document that is in turn entered into a EU or international database. While this gives no certainty about the identity of the person involved, it does at least expose anyone trying to claim asylum from several places, under the same or different names.