Click each image to see more detailed exposés on the buyers, sellers, and alterations
Altered U.S. stamps on eBay - exposed!
"If it sounds too good to be true .. it probably is!!" This is what I often hear from fellow bidders of classic U.S. stamps on eBay when they find out that the "elusive bargain" they have won is nothing more than a cheap stamp misrepresented as its more expensive variety, or has even been altered to look like it.
As a stamp collector, I must confess to being a bit of a bargain hunter myself. And there are times when I have bought what looked like the rarer variety of pre-1930 U.S. stamps, only to find that an extra bit of artwork has been added to the design, or there are signs of a pen cancel on what I thought was an "unused" stamp.
But the more likely case is that I am happy with my bargain buy because I don't even know that it has been altered in some way! Let me tell you a tale .......
The practice of altering U.S. stamps is not a new one. It has gone on long before online auction venues such as eBay were established. Altered stamps have been and still are found at stamp shows, bourses, bricks-and-mortar auctions and mail-bid sales. Thus the phrase "caveat emptor" should be the refrain of any collector of early U.S. stamps, and careful study of the Scott catalogue and the extensive literature available a must before any major purchases are contemplated.
However, before the advent of the Internet, and the phenomenal success of eBay, only a limited number of altered stamps could be sold, because the seller had to actively reach out to the few buyers in his proximity, and in most cases allow them to "kick the tires" before purchasing. Nowadays, any seller can put his wares in front of tens of thousands of collectors instantaneously, show only pictures, and sell them without the option to return.
Why are the 1851-1930 U.S. stamps prime targets for alteration by unethical sellers?
The printing companies experimented with many of the attributes of stamps during those early years, in order to produce a better product and also to prevent counterfeiting. Because of this, many varieties, some of which are rare, can be "made" from stamps with the same basic design. They may include a fully perforated variety; an imperf; a coil, either horizontal or vertical; different perforation sizes, sometimes varying between top and bottom or between the vertical and horizontal edges; and a variety of watermarks and papers. It may or may not have a "grill", and there may be subtle differences in the design itself.
Back then, stamps were often cancelled with pens, and a pen-cancelled stamp is generally worth less than half as much of one hand-stamped with a canceller. Pen cancels are easily removed by cleaning (creating a fake unused stamp) or by covering them with a hand-cancel, more than doubling the value automatically.
Unsophisticated production methods meant that the sizes of stamps varied widely, with the stamps on the edge of a sheet usually having the (less desirable) straight edges, and ragged perforations were common. All of these factors are an invitation for unethical sellers to reperforate stamps to improve centring and eye appeal.
Why are collectors being duped into buying altered stamps?
Scott is regarded as the bible for the majority of collectors of U.S. stamps, and many collectors mount their collections in albums or printed album pages organised by Scott catalogue number.
A number of stamps issued prior to 1869 are really only recuttings, plate positions and/or different printings of the same issue, and specialised knowledge is required to distinguish between them. However, Scott has complicated collectors' lives by allocating major catalogue numbers to them. In-depth studies and a wealth of other information on these issues has been published in a wide range of books, articles and websites, but collectors often tend to "wing it" with only the inadequate Scott Specialized catalogue at hand.
Collections organised by major Scott catalogue numbers will have many gaps for the more expensive varieties. These holes can be filled where possible by acquiring cheaper copies in average to poor condition till better copies are found. The temptation is also there to add items purported to be the scarcer varieties. These are not usually certifiable, because they lack the attributes (such as complete grills or large margins) to make a definite determination.
Unlike other catalogues, Scott uses centring (together with cancellation for used stamps) to grade stamps. This is combined with condition to arrive at a stamp's final grade, which determines its catalogue value. Collectors who take these criteria into account are fussy about appearance, and are turned off by poor centring and even the slightest fault (such as a stain, toning, thins, minute tears, a hinge mark, pulled or clipped perforations, or even a natural paper inclusion).
Toning, stains and general dinginess disappear with a bit of cleaning. Minute tears and clipped or pulled perfs can be reperfed away. Adding additional cancels can make damage difficult to see, particularly on a scan. And really serious damage and back faults can be hidden by pasting the stamp to a piece of an old envelope .
What is all this about an alteration group on eBay?
From September 2001, and probably since more than a year earlier, a group of buyers and sellers located in upstate New York has been involved in the purchase on eBay, alteration, then sale on eBay of U.S. stamps issued prior to the 1930s. They have used the selling IDs "schuylerac", "pcheltenham" and "32gyt78" and the buying IDs "chickfrdstk", "stazy4" and "tremor111".
The eBay seller "schuylerac" was reported in Linn's Stamp News in November 1999 for listing items with Gregory Stolow's disreputable SIGCC certificates of authenticity, and was linked to the shill-bidding user ID "chickfrdstk", who was supposedly Stolow's sister. 
Then from 2000 till May 2002, "schuylerac" offered faulty and low-end altered material as "rarities" in quantities unheard of in philately, usually with a long uppercase "as is" caveat.
How were the alterations discovered?
It had long been suspected by eBay Stamps chat board members that the faulty and inexpensive stamps bought by "chickfrdstk" were being altered and resold by "schuylerac" as the more expensive varieties. The first definite proof was found in September 2001, when a stamp known not to have a grill was purchased by "chickfrdstk", then weeks later offered with a grill by "schuylerac".
However, it was not till early March 2002 that eBay user and stamp collector George Kopecky correlated many of the purchases of "chickfrdstk" with the sales of altered "rarities" by "schuylerac". He also found links to stamps which were purchased but found not amenable to alteration, or on which the alterations were not sufficiently believable, in the "Treasures Waiting to be Discovered" groupings "schuylerac" regularly offered.
The alterations were of every form imaginable, and many examples showed a combination of alterations on the same stamp. Perforations were clipped off to make coils and imperfs, imperforate stamps perforated, designs drawn in, cancels removed or added (sometimes both), straight edges and existing perforations reperforated, repairs and faults covered with new cancels and most items cleaned. New methods of alteration were regularly discovered.
In addition, many of the other items sold by the group and which have not been definitively identified as altered showed the same symptoms as those which had. These included bright white paper with no stains or toning (cleaned), small size stamp for the issue (reperforated), and unused no gum (pen cancels removed).
What did collectors do?
George's comparisons illustrated only too well the alterations that had been performed on the stamps, and their presentation on eBay's chat and discussion boards opened the eyes of many in the eBay collecting community. Bidders who were sent links to the comparisons were motivated to cancel the sales. George and other concerned collectors banded together to establish SCADS (Stamp Collectors Against Dodgy Sellers) and this team began to co-ordinate their efforts to oust the seller from eBay.
What did the sellers do?
In response to emails complaining about the alterations, "schuylerac" added even longer disclaimers to the descriptions, then in mid-May wound up his operations on eBay. But the problem did not stop there.
At the end of April, a new seller "pcheltenham" began listing the same sort of material under the guise of an "estate collection" with a "what you see is what you get" caveat. And a new buyer "stazy4" had joined "chickfrdstk" in acquiring material later found in amongst this "handed down" collection of over 20 boxes.
Some of the material offered by "pcheltenham" was traced directly to lots originally offered by "schuylerac" and which apparently were unsold or returned. A number of these were described as very rare varieties when offered by "schuylerac" but were sold by "pcheltenham" in unidentified bulk lots of up to six stamps.
What did eBay do when the alterations were reported?
Chat board members who reported auctions illustrating the connection between the buyers and sellers of these auctions to eBay SafeHarbor received the standard response that eBay was only a venue, and had no control over the truth and accuracy of the listings. Even in May, when George offered to present his many comparisons of the alterations as evidence, eBay was still not interested, saying, "There is absolutely no way that you can prove, with just pictures, that the items this person is selling are altered items."
In April, eBay tightened its discussion board usage policy to prevent discussion of suspect auctions and sellers on its boards, and sporadically censored postings in the months that followed. Some concerned collectors received 30-day board sanctions for their efforts to educate the eBay stamp collecting community, especially unsuspecting bidders, about the alterations.
The Stamps threaded discussion board was discontinued in July, purportedly for "lack of use". However, the fact that this forum was often used to update other users on the latest activities of dodgy sellers lent credence to the general feelings of chat board members that eBay preferred to sweep the problems under the carpet.
What publicity was there about the alteration group?
As every stamp collector knows, the perforations and cancellations of a stamp make it uniquely identifiable. Realising that no support was forthcoming from eBay, SCADS decided in June to publish the comparisons online so collectors could see for themselves that the pictures did indeed prove that alterations had been made. 
SCADS set up its own website in August and, dubbing the group the Saratoga Ring, has since kept up a running report of its activities. 
TV coverage later that month gave prominence to the problems with authenticity and dodgy sellers in the Stamps category when the PBS Jim Lehrer NewsHour , as part of a story on eBay, aired an interview with SCADS member Richard Doporto. He prepared the online "before"/"after" comparisons of stamps matched by George, and his website contains detailed exposés of the alterations performed on some of the stamps. 
At the same time, the U.S. postal history dealer Richard Frajola sent eBay a petition endorsed by over 200 users, pleading for the cleaning up of fraudulently misdescribed listings in the Stamps category.  This was followed up by an article in Linn's Stamp News in September. 
MSNBC reporters took an interest in the work done by SCADS in exposing the alterations in the face of eBay's complacency. The October article Ebay's tough talk on fraud doesn't withstand scrutiny  and its follow-up Cautionary tales of two auctions , highlight eBay's lack of reaction to documented cases of fraud on the site.
SCADS used this opportunity to publish the detailed article The Saratoga Fakes on this group.  It provides an in-depth analysis of the scope of the fraud, legal issues, eBay features that promoted it and possible courses of action for collectors and law enforcement authorities.
What did philatelic associations and law enforcement authorities do?
The American Philatelic Society, though notified of the operation of this alteration group, appears to have taken no steps to investigate their activities.
A class action suit against the sellers by disgruntled bidders was considered, but because of the cost and amount of work involved in co-ordination and preparation this avenue was not pursued.
As the operation constitutes mail fraud (using the mails for any "scheme or artifice to defraud"), SCADS sent a mail fraud complaint to the U.S. Postal Service inspectors in late August 2002, but it appears not to have been acted on.
What did the sellers do about it?
The group showed a noticeable reaction to the above attempts at publicising the operation. The seller "pcheltenham" added lengthy disclaimers to auctions, changed to listing private auctions so that bidders could not be contacted, and blocked bidders suspected of bidding in order to leave negative feedback.
The buyer "stazy4" stopped activity in August. However, the buying ID "tremor111" (who began bidding in April 2002) continued, as did "chickfrdstk", to purchase low-end material for alteration.
New eBay IDs "wackeywood" (changed from "crustaceans", formerly "schuylerac") and "booksnbooks4u" (formerly "stazy4") were created after reporters attempted to contact group members prior to the release of the MSNBC articles.
On 5 November, a new selling ID, "32gyt78" began listing 5-day auctions on eBay. This new ID was based in New York and registered on eBay on 29 October. Many of the lots were found to have been altered after being bought by "chickfrdstk" and "tremor111" from August through till October. True to the form of "pcheltenham", this seller used the private auction format for later listings, most probably because many bidders from the first set of auctions, alerted to the fact that they were bidding on altered stamps, chose not to go through with their transactions.
The story line used by this seller was that of an older person selling off duplicates at the behest of his nagging heirs. However, the purchase of these supposed duplicates by the buying IDs in this group a matter of weeks earlier is evidence that this was just another fabricated story to lure collectors into thinking they were getting genuine stamps at bargain prices.
What did eBay eventually do about it?
In May 2003, SCADS member George Kopecky drew the activities of the group to the attention of Rob Chesnut, eBay Vice President of Trust and Safety.  The resultant investigation of the group by eBay led to the suspension of the sellers "pcheltenham" and "32gyt78", and also of the buying ID's "chickfrdstk" and "tremor111" later that year.
In October 2003, the buying ID "booksnbooks4u" was changed to "short369". This ID was active in buying damaged and low-end material since March 2004 till its discovery by SCADS and subsequent suspension by eBay in May 2004. A few days later, the dormant selling ID "wackeywood" was suspended and removed from the eBay database.
The group then resurrected dormant buying ID "12trees1947" for its buying activities. Active since the suspension of "short369" in May, this ID was discovered by SCADS in August and shortly after was suspended.
No more buying or selling activity has yet been seen on eBay. Please report any suspicious activity to SCADS.
What effect do the alterations have on the value of the stamps?
Soundness is one of the major criteria for grading stamps. As part of its single number grading system, the PSE (Professional Stamp Experts) lists a faultless stamp as graded at 100 for soundness, a reperf as a major fault (only 25% sound), and any alteration as damaged/restored and only 10% sound.  So the added "grills", for example, instead of adding value, actually reduce the value to even less than that of the original item.
And why are the large margins of stamps being reperfed? According to the PSE, the most important thing about centring is even margins on all sides. This increases eye-appeal. So the larger margins of stamps are reperfed to increase their apparent attractiveness. Even a jumbo stamp, with the picture off-centre, is apparently not as attractive as a smaller one with even margins.
But the irony is that the act of achieving this centring by reperfing lowers the value as much or more than the new, phony centring increases it. If the reperfing is discovered, that is.
How does this affect you?
If you collect early U.S. material and do not have detailed knowledge of what you are buying, chances are that you have already bought something that has been altered, especially if it is from one of the above sellers.
But even if you haven't, the altered material is going into the collections of unsuspecting buyers, and so is likely to be sold down the track without its provenance being known. This material has already been bought and re-offered on eBay, most often with an "as is" caveat, but sometimes as genuine.
The effects on the future of the hobby are many-fold. They range from collectors becoming disillusioned with the amount of faked and altered stamps in their collections and giving up on the hobby, to newer collectors being put off, to affordable genuine material becoming scarcer as it is removed from the market by being altered.
I'm off to check over my bargain buy again. How exactly do you spot a good reperf job, I wonder ..
This article is based on the article of the same name, which was published in Capital Philately, Vol 21 No 1, November 2002, and which was reprinted in Philas News, No 125, June 2003.
© 2002, Sheryll Oswald, All Rights Reserved.
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