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The Facts About Unfranked Stamps, by Robert Murray

This article is presented here because of my unease about the present situation regarding the re-use and sale of UK stamps which have been through the post but escaped being postmarked ("cancelled"/"franked").

BACKGROUND   THE LAW   OPERATION GUM-GUM   CURRENT SITUATION   CHARITIES   DEALERS

First a bit of background. When adhesive postage stamps were first issued in Great Britain in 1840, the Post Office went to great lengths to ensure that all stamps were cancelled (or "obliterated" as they said then) and that the postmarks could not be removed. Their approach was a mixture of efficiency and paranoia. Very few stamps escaped the postmark, but it is very likely that the re-use of unfranked stamps started way back then when somebody got a letter through the post with an unfranked Penny Black, removed it, and stuck it on another letter. With the increase in numbers of letters and of postal mechanisation the number of stamps evading the postmarked increased. The introduction of postmarking machines was probably the biggest reason. Delivery postmen were given the instruction of scoring through unfranked stamps by pen. It has always been the case that it has been illegal to use stamps a second time; however, Royal Mail has never bothered much about taking action against people who have used an odd one here and there. That doesn't mean that the re-use of an individual uncancelled stamp is allowable, just that for practical purposes the PO hasn't seen fit to clamp down on it. In recent years, as a higher proportion of the mail has shown its prepayment by labels or printed indicators, Royal Mail seems to have become more lax in trying to cancel all stamps.

The Law. To quote from a recent letter from an official source; "the reuse of postage stamps that have been through the Royal Mail postal pipeline is illegal. If the sender uses such stamps in the knowledge that they have previously been used they are committing fraud against Royal Mail" and "This applies to both non-cancelled and washed stamps". In theory, Royal Mail could instigate legal action against anybody using even just one unfranked stamp. It is most likely that any legal action would be more likely to succeed against a person who was clearly selling or using uncancelled stamps in larger numbers and/or for profit.

Operation Gum-Gum. A new generation of people are now unaware of the seriousness of such fraud. In 1989 the police, in association with Royal Mail, started an investigation under the name of "Operation Gum Gum". They built up evidence against a number of people who were buying kiloware, extracting unfranked stamps (and in some cases even cleaning off light postmarks), and selling them on to others. Those who were targeted found it a surprising and scary ordeal. Some individuals were arrested, some of these tried and convicted, and some ended up with prison sentences. For a while this had the predictable effect of stopping commercial activity in stamps without postmarks. (See Glasgow Herald article from 1989.)

The situation in recent years has changed. We now have; {a} a higher proportion than before of stamps not being cancelled, {b} many people gathering the unfranked stamps and selling them on (sometimes still on their backing paper, sometimes off), and {c} Royal Mail apparently doing little to stop this.
Some of the wording used by people selling unfranked stamps is in quite "play the daft laddie" style, as in "none of these stamps seem to have their frank marks". Others are quite blatant, such as "stamps are unfranked, stamps are of the adhesive kind, they have been floated off paper and remounted onto greaseproof paper they still retain a residue of the original gum which makes them still sticky. They should just peel and stick, however some may require a little glue to help them stick again", which then goes on to say "stamps are for philatelic use" (as if they think inserting that phrase turns illegal into legal).
Some vendors are much more blatant e.g.
"100 1st class stamps on paper unfranked no gum " (this vendor also advertises on the same web pages bags of kiloware "which I sell by the sack ..... all that is taken from the sacks is the unfranked).

The Post Office does not make public what their current thinking is. My guess is that it is one of these three;
{1} That Royal Mail's long-term plan is to phase out the use of adhesive postage stamps, and that they'll live with the lost revenue caused by the re-use of unfranked stamps until that happens.
{2} That Royal Mail is in fact quite disorganised in connecting its policies across different departments. Whereas one section might be keen to see this problem tackled, there's little appetite in the other departments that would "at the sharp end".
{3} That at the moment they have a small team building up files of evidence against some selected alleged miscreants. Then at some time (and who knows when ?) a new "Operation Gum-Gum" will be knocking on their doors at dawn.

Charities. The situation for charities who collect stamps for funds is therefore a bit confusing. Obviously it would be highly embarrassing if a charity was found to be gathering stamps, removing the ones that haven't been postmarked, selling these on knowing that they would be used again, and was then caught up in a Post Office/Police operation. That end of the scale is obvious, and I would expect charities to avoid being involved in that way.
At the other end of the scale are bags of stamps being sold to collectors who are looking through for stamps for their collections, or that they can exchange with collectors overseas. That is totally innocent.
But there's a big grey area in-between. What if a charity sells bags of stamps to someone who is commercially extracting and selling the unfranked ?  Does it make any difference whether or not the charity knows what is happening ?

Dealers. Most professional dealers (i.e. those who earn a living from it) don't have enough time to process unfranked stamps. Some do in a quiet way and supplement their profits while still keeping out of that limelight. Most dealers know that being prosecuted for offences relating to illegal stamp sales would possibly put them out of business.

Our Policy. We are concerned about this. (Obviously !  Otherwise I would not have written this article.) I see what is going on and sometimes wonder at the brazenness of some folk. I worry that some people I know are going too far and might get their fingers burned. Strangely, when kiloware comes in from charities for sale, we will look to see if there's any unfranked material in it, but that is because it is a very good marker as to whether the mix has been picked over or not (if kiloware has had all the unfranked taken out, it has quite possibly had other better things removed as well - the things that our customers want to find when they buy a bag).
So, our policy is that we do not buy and sell unfranked stamps for postage, although we do handle lots of it in amongst bags and collections. If someone enquires about buying charity stamps from us, but tell us that they are looking for unfranked, we'll refuse to sell them any.

It would be much easier if only the Post Office would postmark more of its mail !



Copyright Robert Murray 2013    This article represents the views, understanding, and opinions of the author, and should not be taken to have any legal status.

Page Last Updated Wednesday 17 April 2013.

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