“Waste, fraud and abuse.” How often we hear that from politicians promising to clean up government. I just roll my eyes, because if it were that simple, it would already have been done, right?
But government never seems able to stay one step ahead of con artists devising ways to rip it off. It isn’t rocket science. One major, common scam is filing phony income tax returns claiming refunds. And government, robotically, just mails out the checks. In one case over 500 separate tax refund checks went to a single mailbox . . . in Lithuania. You might think the government would have noticed something amiss, around, oh, the hundredth check. Nope.
All told, the U.S. government sent out an estimated $125 billion in improper payments last year.
As a numismatist, I read Coin World, and a recent issue headlined “Recyclers Target Mint With Fakes.” The story began by noting “an elaborate scheme to bilk the U.S. Mint out of more than $5.4 million.” Doesn’t sound like that big a deal? But wait.
You see, the Mint has a program for reimbursement for mutilated coins turned in.
In this particular case, the coins proved to be counterfeits, originating in China where, of course, counterfeiting of everything is a major industry.
Coin World went on to report that “the purported mutilated U.S. coins [were found] to have been uniformly mutilated by mechanical means.” So first you manufacture the fake coins; then you mutilate them; then send them to the Mint for “reimbursement.” A nice business, getting 50 cents for a fake half dollar costing only a few cents to make. (Much easier than trying to pass all those coins in commerce.)
How could they possibly, with straight faces, explain the great quantities of mutilated U.S. coins turned in? The claim is that they’re found in junk cars being scrapped. It’s been calculated that every such car would have to yield $900 in mutilated coins to account for the totals submitted. Yeah, sure.
Still, $5.4 million may sound almost like chump change. But that was only one case. Coin World noted that as early as 2009, investigators with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were alerted to possible problems “based on the increased shipments of mutilated coins passing through the Port of Los Angeles.” Yet the Mint continued to send out the checks – no questions asked.
Now here is the quote that really got my attention (from the complaint in the recent case filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lakshmi Srinavasan Herman): “Interestingly, United States Mint personnel also believe that more half dollars have been redeemed by China-sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the United States Mint has ever manufactured in its history.” (My emphasis)