The rise and fall of Hologram Tam

THE bundles of £20 notes were crisp and neatly arranged. Alongside them similarly-stacked piles of euros in various denominations were also laid out. It was a scene played out daily in the counting rooms of any high street bank, except this was not a highly-secure subterranean vault. Instead, this was the floor of Print Link (Scotland) Ltd, a tiny shop in the shadow of the M8 motorway in Glasgow's West End.

Here, Thomas McAnea, the master forger and one-time print union official, would create his works of art - exquisite and virtually flawless. So good was his handiwork, that had it been allowed to go unchecked, it would, according to the police, have been viable enough to "destabilise the British economy".

The man at the centre of this astonishing illegal cottage industry has been dubbed "Hologram Tam" and was a figure whose reputation was second-to-none throughout the UK underworld.

Clad in a brown lab-type coat, which, over the years had become virtually black from the ink it had soaked up, McAnea's artistic ability, eye for detail and uncanny ability to mimic the legitimate experts who design banknotes meant orders for his talents were never far away.

Working with a close-knit group of friends, each of whom had their own, individual skills, he forged a team which, many experts reckon, was the best of its kind in the UK.

Previously, McAnea had headed an organisation capable of producing in excess of 80m-worth of counterfeit currency every week.

But that operation was also smashed by the police. However, that inquiry was marred by incompetence and sloppiness on behalf of the investigators and it was a hard lesson which their successors ensured would not be repeated a second time around.

Today, the 57-year-old and the rest of his team are languishing in jail awaiting sentence for their part in a counterfeit currency scam which was potentially worth millions of pounds a year.

McAnea, according to those who know him, is a "one-off", someone who has the wherewithal to turn worthless pieces of paper into "currency" which, to the naked eye, is totally legitimate. His finest skill, as his moniker would suggest, is to be able to place hologram and watermarks in the notes, something which, for obvious reasons, only highly-trained experts are supposed to be able to do.

The investigation which brought McAnea down was headed by the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), but even the detectives who eventually arrested him have a grudging respect for their target.

"Anyone with a printer and a computer can knock off a half-decent copy of a bank note today, but even the person in the street would know the difference when they picked it up," said one officer at the heart of the operation that snared him.

"This is where Tam came in, though. He knew everything there was to know about holograms, watermarks, what types of paper to use and how the end result should look and feel. Organised crime groups who wanted fake notes knew the only person who they could virtually guarantee would do a job for them was Tam. He did have a legitimate business at one time, but that went bust and, without any other strings to his bow, he was stuck for a living. He then chose to use the skills which he had learned to fund an illegal lifestyle and, unfortunately for us, he was very, very good at it."

When SCDEA officers crashed through the doors of the print shop in St George's Road, Maryhill, McAnea and his team were in the process of printing around 500,000 in Bank of Scotland 20 notes. A subsequent raid resulted in the recovery of €250,000.

The detective added: "The money was literally in the machine waiting to come out the other end. To say they were caught red-handed would be a real understatement. It looked for all the world like a legitimate printing shop, but with all the work which had gone on investigating the case, we knew very different."

Publicly, the vast majority of Print Link's work was for the local takeaway trade, producing menus and leaflets advertising the latest offers, but behind-the-scenes there was a far more lucrative side of the business. This was illustrated last year when police in London, acting on a tip-off, recovered a suitcase which was found to contain almost 3m-worth of euros. The cash was awaiting holograms and watermarks. Investigations subsequently revealed that the money was destined for McAnea's shop because he was the only person in Britain capable of finishing the job.

This was how the team operated by word-of-mouth with their name and reputation being earned over the years and it means that the true extent of what McAnea may have produced will, almost certainly, never be known. A friend of the forger told Scotland on Sunday: "They may have got Tam bang-to-rights this time, but what they have recovered and what they know about is just the tip of the iceberg. A fortune has passed through his hands over the years. Literally, millions of pounds, although you would never know it to look at him or his lifestyle."

'Hologram Tam' and his cronies never actually distributed the money, instead they simply printed it, being paid for their work by the organised crime teams who needed their skills in legitimate cash, usually on a basis of two fake notes for one clean.

McAnea's arrest in January 2007 was not the first time, however, he had fallen foul of the law. More than a decade earlier, the forger had stood trial and was convicted for his part in a plot to flood Europe with fake banknotes.

McAnea and his gang were arrested by Strathclyde Police during an inquiry codenamed Operation Wembley, a reference to the fact that the money they produced was to be distributed in the pubs and clubs frequented by football fans during the 1996 European Championships in England.

The plan, hatched by one of Glasgow's leading crime families was for Scotland supporters to take the forged money down south with them and spend it in circles where it was bound to be picked up and eventually taken home by followers of other European teams.

Operation Wembley centred on the forger's shop in Beith Street, Partick, where he and his team had the potential to produce 12m-worth of fake Bank of England 20 notes every day. Other notes forged were Clydesdale Bank 5 and Danish Kroner along with MoT certificates, TV licence stamps and Duty Free vouchers for cross-Channel ferries.

McAnea recruited graphic artists and master printers to form a team working out of a back-street shop. When police raided the premises they were amazed how sophisticated the operation was, with the gang using a four-colour, lithographic printing press, a Heidelberg press for producing the stamps and enough paper to produce 1.6m-worth of notes. It was the first time police in Scotland had ever seen such a level of sophistication in a counterfeiting operation.

A tip-off led police to the gang and, in 1998 at the High Court in Glasgow, McAnea was jailed for 10 years. Judge Lord Cameron told him his crime was one which "struck at the root of commercial and economic life of a country" and had the "potential to destroy confidence in the lawfully issued currency of a country".

Within seven months, though, McAnea and his cohorts were free, released by the Court of Appeal on a legal technicality - ironically, a printing error. When the warrant for Beith Street was issued, the date of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act which covered the offences the gang was suspected of was typed out as "1989" instead of "1981".

The mistake meant the warrant was invalid and, while it may have been the smallest of oversights, it was enough to free McAnea, who celebrated his unexpected freedom in inimitable style - setting up a business called "Queen's Head Printers" based in Ingram Street, Glasgow city centre. According to one pal, the name was a deliberate "two fingers to the Strathclyde Polis" for taking him to trial on evidence which they knew would not stand up to legal scrutiny.

A decade later, when police returned to re-arrest McAnea, they made sure they did not repeat the mistakes of the past by using several warrants for each property to ensure they were not caught out again.

Last Monday, McAnea admitted at the High Court in Glasgow to delivering, selling or disposing of fake Bank of Scotland and euro notes. One of his co-accused, John McGregor, pleaded guilty to making fake Bank of Scotland notes, while Joseph McKnight and Robert Fulton were convicted of helping distribute the counterfeit money. Two other men and a women also admitted their part in the scheme.

The Bank of England estimated that in 2006 there were 384,000 fake banknotes with a face value of around 7.6m in circulation throughout the UK out of the total of 2,118,000,000 legitimate notes. That showed a 24% drop from the previous year but it is expected that the 2007 figures will reveal an even bigger fall, a fact which police think can be directly linked to the final fall from grace of "Hologram Tam".

Copycats

STEPHEN JORY

Began his counterfeiting career in north London by producing bottles of fake perfume. He later switched to forging Bank of England 20 notes along with his team who were dubbed the Lavender Hill Mob by detectives. After Jory was arrested in 1998, experts were brought in to redesign the watermark used on 20 notes because so many of his notes were still in circulation.

FRANK WILLIAM ABAGNALE

Printed counterfeit cheques which he then cashed, withdrawing money that he had "deposited" earlier using fake deposit slips. But as well as a master forger, Abagnale was also a brilliant impersonator, claiming to be a Pan-Am pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher at different times. His story became the movie Catch Me If You Can.

GIUSEPPE MORELLO

Became the most powerful mob boss in New York in the early 1900s. He and fellow gangster, Ignazio Lupo, joined forces to run the city, but, following the collapse of a real estate investment in 1909, they were forced to turn to forgery to make their money. The operation to close down this gang led the authorities to form the group which today is known as the US Secret Service.

CATHERINE MURPHY

Executed on Wednesday March 18, 1789, at Newgate in London after being convicted of high treason. Murphy's crime, known as "coining", was a relatively common one at the time, clipping tiny pieces off silver and gold coins until there was enough metal to make a complete coin.

ANATASIOS ARNAOUTI

Was jailed in 2005 for eight years after being convicted of a variety of counterfeiting offences. He was the ringleader of a gang based in the north-west of England which produced 2.5m-worth of fake 10 notes and 3.5m-worth of US dollars. Sentencing him, Judge Bernard Lever said: "You were the instigator and prime mover and this massive enterprise was your brainchild."