Royal Mail is one of this country’s most iconic brands, woven indelibly into the fabric of our society. 

It spans nearly 500 years, and its history has a rather nice symmetry, first providing services to the public under the reign of King Charles I in 1635 and continuing today under Charles III.

Although Royal Mail is no longer state-owned, and the faceless digital world chips away remorselessly at its relevance, more than seven billion letters are delivered countrywide every year by its army of posties bedecked in their striking red garb. That’s a lot of letters.

Many people, especially the elderly, still depend upon it to pay utility bills or deposit cheques into postal operated savings accounts.

The deliveries that friendly posties drop through our letter boxes may not always be welcome. 

More than 7 billion letters are still delivered countrywide every year by Royal Mail's army of posties bedecked in their striking red garb

More than 7 billion letters are still delivered countrywide every year by Royal Mail's army of posties bedecked in their striking red garb

More than 7 billion letters are still delivered countrywide every year by Royal Mail’s army of posties bedecked in their striking red garb

But the thrill of receiving a physical birthday card or a hand-written note from a friend is something to behold (sending letters also brings its joys, as I can confirm).

Yet let’s not overdo the spoonfuls of saccharine. Royal Mail, owned by International Distributions Services (a company listed on the UK stock market), is far from perfect.

In some ways, it’s a corporate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Like many private companies and public organisations, its executives live in their own cosy little world. They have lost touch with their customers.

The company’s relationship with its heavily unionised workforce is feisty (and that’s being polite) while its request to dumb down the universal postal service obligation it works under — it wants to deliver second-class mail only three days a week — has gone down like a lead balloon with both the public and politicians.

But the issue that could prove to be its Achilles heel is counterfeit stamps. Its attempt to deal with a locust-like swarm of fake stamps plaguing our postal service — most, allegedly, from China — is at best ham-fisted. At worst, it’s immoral.

Rather than putting all its energy into ensuring these counterfeits do not enter this country — and stamping down on retailers who buy them — Royal Mail has adopted an approach that is as bewildering as it is outrageously unfair.

Bizarrely, it has decided to effectively leave the crooks to go about their fraudulent ways. Instead, it has chosen to target the recipients of post sent using counterfeit stamps — issuing them with £5 fines if they want to receive their letters.

In other words, it is going after the innocents in this multi-million-pound racket in what appears to be a cynical attempt to recoup the vast losses it suffers from the counterfeit stamps. (For those unable to keep up with the soaring cost of stamps, a first-class stamp for a standard letter now costs £1.35.)

You couldn’t make it up. Not even the risible tribe that recently went before Lord Sugar in TV’s The Apprentice would dream up such a crazy solution to a business problem. This despicable targeting of the innocents should stop NOW.

Since the start of the year, Money Mail has received a stream of correspondence from readers who have been fined for receiving a letter sent using a counterfeit stamp. 

This has turned into a torrent as the scale of the problem has emerged and more people have come out of the woodwork to admit they have also been fined.

Fakes: Counterfeit stamps have always been a problem. Yet it is only since the introduction of barcoded stamps in early 2022 that Royal Mail has the true scale of the issue been revealed

Counterfeit stamps have always been a problem for Royal Mail. Yet it is only since the introduction of barcoded stamps in early 2022 that Royal Mail has begun to get an idea of the true scale of the issue.

The barcode sits alongside the stamp, separated by a simulated perforation. Royal Mail says the code links physical letters to the digital world, allowing it to be scanned (in time) by the recipient to access messages such as a birthday greeting from the sender.

Yet its real purpose appears to be to identify fraud. Although it is relatively easy for counterfeit barcoded stamps to be produced by fraudsters, it is now much harder for fake stamps to escape detection – thanks to Royal Mail’s revenue protection team and its army of fraud detection machines that scan the barcodes to see whether they are legitimate.

The result is that counterfeit stamps are STILL flooding the market, typically being sold either online or via websites such as eBay.

They find their way to retailers on the High Street and even Post Office counters. Since 1989, retailers have been legally able to buy stamps from whom ever they prefer. So many of those buying the counterfeits may not realise they are fakes and think they’ve found a terrific price online.

Others may be aware that the deal looks dodgy, but are willing to take the risk because they stand to make a huge profit as customers can’t tell the difference at the till. The difference now is that, thanks to the barcodes, Royal Mail is suddenly able to reap rich rewards from this deluge of fakes.

It simply detects the stamps as they go through the postal system and issues a £5 fine to anyone sent a letter using a counterfeit — something that was extremely difficult before the barcodes were introduced.

Royal Mail's request to dumb down the universal postal service obligation it works under has gone down like a lead balloon with both the public and politicians

Royal Mail's request to dumb down the universal postal service obligation it works under has gone down like a lead balloon with both the public and politicians

Royal Mail’s request to dumb down the universal postal service obligation it works under has gone down like a lead balloon with both the public and politicians

Challenging the fine is a waste of time. Royal Mail’s response to customers who complain is risible. While accepting they are not responsible for the stamps used, it says Royal Mail must get paid for the postal service used, so the surcharge is ‘non-refundable’.

Royal Mail then asks those fined to help it reduce stamp fraud by confidentially reporting it.

Even when complainants go back to Royal Mail and say that the sender of the offending letter bought the stamps from a local Post Office, the company is not interested. The fine still stands.

There is also growing evidence that some customers are being fined because of genuine stamps being wrongly identified as counterfeit by the machines it employs to detect fraudulent stamps.

In recent weeks, following investigative work by Money Mail, MPs from all the main political parties have called for Royal Mail to suspend the fines.

For example, Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park in Greater London, says it is ‘ridiculous’ for Royal Mail ‘to be penalising innocent people’. Absolutely.

For the time being, Royal Mail is content to keep fining the innocents.

Yesterday, it told Money Mail: ‘The combination of new barcoded stamps with added security features, the surcharge, and Royal Mail actively working with law enforcement authorities, has led to a 90 pc reduction in counterfeit stamps in our network.’

The statement is a tacit acknowledgement that it’s using fines to try to stop an illegal trade.

Money Mail believes the £5 fine should be axed, not suspended. It’s wrong.

Furthermore, Royal Mail should be required to pay back the money it has taken from innocent victims of this counterfeit scandal and apologise.

Sadly, for this U-turn to happen, we need the Government to step up to the plate. Although Ofcom regulates the postal service, it said yesterday that ‘issues regarding the authenticity of stamps are not within the scope of Ofcom’s regulation, which is set in legislation by Parliament.’

Well, they should be.

Royal Mail’s fining of the innocents is the equivalent of corporate robbery. Dick Turpin plc. It shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it any longer.

I imagine you agree.

[email protected]

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This post first appeared on Dailymail.co.uk

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