Why would anyone fake the humble Toonie? The answer may lie in China

A real Toonie, left, and counterfeit ‘camel toe’ Toonie.JP MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The RCMP’s recent discovery of thousands of counterfeit tonies has raised concerns about the integrity of Canada’s banking system, causing them to circulate with apparent ease.

It also begs a question: why would anyone fake the humble tonie? The seized counterfeits seem to contradict the prevailing wisdom about counterfeiting: Since high denominations involve about the same amount of labor and import costs as low-value coins, $50 and $100 bills are much more attractive targets for counterfeiting than tonies.

The answer may well lie in China, where the RCMP claims that the Camel Toe Toonies (named for their most notable defect, a flaw in the polar bear’s paw) originated.

Daixiong He, 68, of Richmond Hill, Ont., was arrested last month and charged with displaying counterfeit money and possession of counterfeit money. (None of the allegations have been proven in court.) The RCMP said the charges stem from a nearly year-long investigation in which it identified and seized about 10,000 counterfeit tonies from the Canadian banking system. (The Canadian Bankers Association declined to answer questions.)

Reports of the counterfeits came to light in the first half of 2020, when a trader found 75 of them in a cash register. The dealer, who did not identify himself publicly, posted about the discovery on a coin collector forum in July 2020.

“Since I’ve been finding them on and off since March, I’m assuming they’re already circulating in large numbers in the [Greater Toronto Area]”They’re not going to take advantage of these tonies in any way by spending them on $2 coffee.”

That news soon spread among collectors. Mike Marshall, a coin expert in Quinte West, Ontario who has taught seminars on identifying counterfeits, said he bought five rolls of tonies in October 2020 and identified 26 counterfeits. Each had the signature flaw: The polar bear’s right front paw had a large split toe.

Brent Mackie, treasurer of the Waterloo Coin Society, learned about the Camel Toe Toonies in March 2021 through an online forum. He went to the bank and bought a box of tonies and found two impostors. Aroused his curiosity, he bought nearly 500 additional boxes over several months during visits to banks in Ontario, worth a total of about $500,000. (He started a website dedicated to the counterfeits.) He found about 2,500 counterfeits, almost all of them the Camel Toe variety.

“They’re certainly not hard to find,” Mr. Mackie said. “You can go to a bank, get a stack of sandwiches, and you’ll almost certainly find some, at least somewhere near [Toronto]†

Michelle Richardson, a spokesperson for The Royal Canadian Mint, which produces Canadian coins, said the Mint discovered the counterfeits last summer through random sampling. (She declined to describe the trial, saying the Mint has no investigative powers.) Officials notified the RCMP, which entrusted financial crime investigators from its transnational serious and organized crime section to the case.

She said it is exceptionally rare to find fake tonies, but not unprecedented.

Why would anyone fake the humble Toonie? The answer may lie in China

Many Camel Toe Toonies have vague impressions of the polar bear surrounding the Queen’s portrait.JP MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

In September 2006, police accompanied officials from the Quebec Revenue Service to execute a search warrant at a token factory in Repentigny, Que., in a tax evasion case. They found counterfeit coin making equipment, along with nearly finished tonies and madmen. They called in the RCMP.

The Mounties said this operation (dubbed the Montreal Mint) was the most complex of its kind they had encountered. Those fake tonies carried dates from 2004 and 2005; their outer ring metal was a darker gray than real money, and the core could be removed as there was no mechanism to hold it in place.

While the comparative quality of counterfeits is in the eye of the beholder, the RCMP said in a statement that the Camel Toe Toonies were even better. For example, their weight was close to that of the real article. And they came in multiple varieties: Mr. Mackie said their most common dates are 1996, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006.

RCMP said in an email response to questions that the counterfeits are sophisticated as they were able to enter the financial system and were accepted and deposited with banks.

They nevertheless contain notable flaws, the most obvious of which was the polar bear’s rough right front paw. Fonts differ from the real article in obvious ways: real coins use sans serif fonts, while some Camel Toe versions include serifs. mr. Marshall said the maple top on the front is a little too high.

Mr. Mackie paid special attention to manufacturing defects. For example, when the dies — the metal punches used to make a coin — touch each other, they leave damage called a die collision on subsequent counterfeits. (This can happen when an operator fails to insert a blank coin.) Many Camel Toe Toonies have faint impressions of the polar bear surrounding the queen’s portrait, he said. In addition, errors in earlier versions become more pronounced in later versions.

Mr Mackie said this indicates that the operation produced many counterfeits and quality control was not a priority.

“They use these dies until they literally explode,” he said.

Why would anyone fake the humble Toonie? The answer may lie in China

Coin expert Brent Mackie at his home in Kitchener, Ontario, June 24.JP MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Therein lies a possible explanation for how counterfeit products can be profitable: economies of scale. mr. Mackie says, “If you’re going to make millions of them, you can reuse all the molds and machines and split that cost into every single piece. If you make millions of them, it might only cost 50 cents a coin to produce.”

This is the first foreign-based Canadian coin counterfeiting known to the Mint. But the alleged origins of the coins in China did not surprise collectors, who are used to seeing replicas of rare collectible coins made in China.

“They didn’t make them to be traded as real,” said Mr. Marshall on the replica collectibles. “They make them fair for people to fill gaps in their collection that they could never afford.” But unscrupulous sellers often buy such coins and sell them online at inflated prices to unwary collectors, he added.

With the faked tonies, he added: “The only thing that has changed is that adventurous people now realize that the Chinese will make anything you want. If you send them a photo, give them a diameter and a weight, they’ll make it.”

As part of his efforts to convince e-commerce sites and authorities to prevent the sale of counterfeits made in China, Mr. Marshall ordered thousands of counterfeits from Chinese suppliers. None of those shipments failed to cross the border into Canada and reach its door via the postal service, he said. (Canada Border Services Agency spokesman Rebecca Purdy said officers are trained to search for smuggling and other customs violations; between 2017 and 2021, the agents encountered a mixture of counterfeit notes and coins and carried out 25 enforcement actions.)

Mr Marshall estimates there are “millions” of Camel Toe Toonies in circulation. Initially found in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, they are now all over the country.

In addition, say Mr. Mackie and Mr. Marshall that they’ve seen whole boxes of tonies straight from banks that don’t contain any real coin. Mr Marshall said police should have started investigating when they were first warned about the counterfeits in 2020, and efforts to interest officials and the media were fruitless.

“Because it was coins, nobody responded,” said Mr Marshall. ‘Everyone said, ‘Yeah, yeah, who’s going to fake a tonie?’ That is exactly why you imitate a toonie: because no one is looking.”

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