As an estimated 1.3 billion holiday cards descend on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), there is a growing problem that the agency would love to stamp out: counterfeit postage stamps sold on Facebook, eBay and illicit websites.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of fake stamp sites on Facebook,” says Andrea Avery, an assistant inspector in charge at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the law enforcement arm of the postal service.
A first-class Forever stamp for a 1-ounce card or letter costs 58 cents — and when bargain-basement prices are advertised, that’s a red flag. “A substantial discount means the stamps are likely counterfeit,” Avery says.
In a nationwide advisory Dec. 17, USPIS said the problem of counterfeits sold online “has escalated.” Counterfeits — most often the U.S. flag stamp — often are being sold in bulk quantities at 20 to 50 percent less than their stated value. “To ensure your trusted communication arrives at its destination without delay, the Postal Inspection Service wants you to be aware of — and avoid — phony postage,” it said.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Sleuthing out sham stamps
Jay Bigalke, 39, editor in chief of Linn’s Stamp News in Sidney, Ohio, is a longtime sleuth of counterfeit stamps. Yet even he was surprised the day after Thanksgiving when at a post office outside Dayton, Ohio, the patron in front of him asked the clerk about “the Black Friday Facebook discount.” No such postage deal exists, but earlier that morning Bigalke saw a Facebook ad in his news feed purporting to sell 100 Christmas stamps — worth $58 — for $39.90, or a 31 percent markdown.
In August, Bigalke warned about counterfeiters copying U.S. commemorative stamps being offered online at steep discounts. The problem “has exploded … as soon as one seller is stopped, another pops up,” he wrote then.
Earlier this month, WHEC TV in Rochester, New York, reported that a man needing more stamps for Christmas cards was scammed by a Facebook ad from UUStamps.com, a website whose registrant is in the Chinese province of Hunan. When AARP emailed questions to the site, the "qijiuzhongfu Support Team" replied saying it would "respond shortly."
Postal Inspector Raymond Williams told the NBC affiliate that USPIS is “aware of an increase in suspected counterfeit stamps offered for sale, with many being offered online on online platforms.” It’s believed many of the fakes are produced outside the U.S., he said, and his agency is “working to identify shipments of counterfeit postage stamps entering the U.S. and the online sales of suspected counterfeit stamps.”
Banished from Facebook
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, says the ad for the phony Black Friday stamp deal was linked to a page that has been removed. It says UUStamps — featured in the TV report — has been taken off Facebook along with others, including UUSMalls Online and Uusforever. “These pages have been removed from our platform after repeatedly violating our policies against deceptive and misleading practices meant to scam people out of money,” a Meta spokesperson says.
Policies say Facebook ads must not promote products, services, schemes or offers using deceptive practices, including “those meant to scam people out of money or personal information.”
Facebook users are urged to report ads they believe violate policies by clicking the three dots in the upper right-hand corner of ads.
Avery, a sworn law enforcement officer at USPIS, says the postal service itself never sells stamps at prices below face value. However, legitimate retailers sometimes provide “very small discounts” on stamps under agreements with USPS, she adds. The opposite also is true: Some retailers charge more than face value.
Bigalke, who once delivered mail in his native Wisconsin, says several U.S. flag stamps have been faked over the years as well as numerous commemoratives including “Love Skywriting” (2017), “Hot Wheels” (2018), Cactus Flowers (2019) and Winter Scenes (2020). He suspects this year’s Christmas stamps — dubbed a “Visit from St. Nick” — also are being counterfeited since he has seen them on websites selling fakes.
Bigalke also edits the annual Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, which includes counterfeits, and predicts there will be 20 or more new fakes when the 2022 edition rolls out.
Most counterfeit U.S. stamps are printed in China, says Ken Martin of the American Philatelic Society, which is the world’s largest nonprofit organization for stamp collectors and based in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Martin, 57, is its director of expertizing, which has him examine stamps for authenticity.
Lately, counterfeits are either increasing in number or the crooks behind them are becoming “more brazen,” Martin says.
“They even send out mass mailings saying they are a USPS-authorized discount seller and so forth,” he says.
“It’s basically garbage — they’re counterfeit stamps.”
eBay fights fake stamps
Martin says eBay “almost always has counterfeit stamps available for sale.” Bigalke, though, says he has found that eBay, which hosts third-party sellers, “watches this stuff” and takes down shady listings.
eBay tells AARP it monitors listings to prevent counterfeit stamps from being offered and that Forever stamps may be sold only by sellers who follow its policies and have a history of high customer satisfaction. It notes that items purchased on eBay, including stamps, are covered by a money-back guarantee.
“Counterfeits are not tolerated on eBay including the sale of counterfeit stamps,” eBay spokesperson Parmita Choudhury says, noting it uses artificial intelligence, image recognition and other technology to “stop sophisticated bad actors from circumventing our rules.”
U.S. stamps, once produced at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, now are printed by a select group of private firms. Producing genuine stamps requires advanced technology because of security features not visible to the naked eye, Martin and Bigalke say.
Crooks hurt the bottom line
What pains them and others is that cheating the post office hurts all consumers. To fund it operations, the Postal Service relies on the sale of postage, products and services. During this year’s peak holiday mailing season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, it expects to deliver more than 12 billion letters, greeting cards and packages to homes across the country. While USPS doesn’t estimate how many mailings are holiday cards, Hallmark Cards puts the number at 1.3 billion.
If a postal employee detects a counterfeit stamp, the item is confiscated and reported to USPIS, Avery says.
3 Ways to Lick the Problem
Genuine stamps are available in plenty of places
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 15, 2021 and been updated with new information.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.