Cost-effective tools to foil the forgers: Ticketmedia business inspection
By Jenny Roper Thursday, 19 July 2012
Developing a new low-cost anti-counterfeiting process has led to ongoing growth
Ticketmedia prints tickets for the transport, parking and events markets, and generates revenue in most cases from advertising sold on the back of these tickets. The company says the model it uses creates a win-win situation for customer and printer: while the customer gets their tickets printed for free, the printer gets more advertising space to sell from the increased up-take that this brings, which generates higher profits than if the printer was simply charging for ticket production.
At the start of last year, managing director Jeremy Burbidge was tasked with solving a problem facing one of his main clients, Stagecoach. Although the bus company had tried many different anti-counterfeiting techniques on its season tickets, it was dissatisfied with the results.
With unique holograms too expensive to include on bus passes, Stagecoach had tried paper holograms, but had found that forgers – including a 16-year-old boy in his bedroom – were able to use foiled wrapping paper to replicate them.
Similarly, fluorescent orange and pink inks, although impossible to replicate entirely accurately on a standard desktop inkjet printer, could be fabricated with enough accuracy to go unnoticed at a glance.
Burbidge’s initial plan to overcome this was to change the way tickets were checked by the bus drivers. He trialled inks only visible under UV light, hot-foil numbering systems and embossing holograms into the laminate of the ticket wallets.
However, Stagecoach was adamant that such advanced security methods would be too expensive for it to implement.
"All of these technologies would require a level of expertise to recognise whether they were genuine or not," says Burbidge. "The biggest problem transport firms have is policing their own staff. Stagecoach has around 20,000 employees so just to train so many people to recognise a security mark, nevermind installing special scanners, would have been cost prohibitive."
What was needed, says Burbidge, was "something that was easily identifiable to the untrained eye".
What Burbidge was also hoping to do by developing a new kind of security mark, was to incorporate Stagecoach travel passes into Ticketmedia’s model of selling advertising space on the back of tickets. To do this he would need to find a security mark that was cheaper to produce than a hologram.
"If we put a hologram on a wallet seal, the cost per thousand in terms of advertising has to go up in line with the expense of that product so we can cover the cost," he explains. "With no advertisers willing to pay that cost, the client we are producing them for has to cover it instead."
Burbidge knew that if he could produce a cheaper ticket he could monetise production of the ticket much more effectively, bringing in more profits in ad revenues than would be generated from charging for ticket printing.
So Burbidge set to work using his 30 years’ of experience in security print to come up with a ticket that was cheap to produce, easy to validate, but also extremely difficult to forge.
His first solution was to utilise dynamic perforating. Tickets were perforated with a wavy line, which was differently positioned on each ticket in relation to its unique identification number. The idea was that the tear-off stubs from these perforations were to be kept back at Stagecoach HQ. When a fraudster had been rumbled and apprehended, a mismatched perforation would provide an extra indication, on top of a mismatched verification number, that fraud had been committed.
This perforated marking would be a way not just of checking the validity of a ticket, but also making tickets impossible to forge in the first place.
"What I made unique about the perf was it had two or three variations within it," says Burbidge. "So it had a micro perf and then a coarser perf, then a finer perf layered together and to try and forge this without a printing press with die-cut stations would be virtually impossible. We had a go trying to forge it here and we couldn’t produce anything anywhere close to it – you could see straight away it wasn’t mechanically produced."
Stagecoach was understandably very pleased with how impossible to replicate this perforation was. What the company didn’t see the need for was the stub system, as actually their main preoccupation was to create a marking that was so difficult to recreate that this would deter people from even trying.
"No bus company wants to go round prosecuting people, because the cost of prosecuting just isn’t worth the face value of the ticket," says Burbidge, explaining that this meant having an extra indicator that a ticket wasn’t the real deal once a suspect was being charged with forgery wasn’t, then, high up on Stagecoach’s agenda.
In light of this, a neater solution than having a loose perforated edge on the tickets, discovered Burbidge, was to use the same die-cutting stations to emboss a wavy line onto the tickets that wasn’t scored all of the way through.
This could still be officially verified back at Stagecoach HQ as no two embossed line and number combinations should ever be the same. "I have my die stations set up with a variable distance so the embossed line never sits in the same place," explains Burbidge. "Stagecoach has a limit of around 6m numbers so having the wavy line is an extra way of making sure each one is unique. The odds of having the same pattern on the same number are impossibly high."
But as with the fully perforated tickets, the main selling point for Stagecoach was that bus drivers could quickly and easily see whether a ticket was the genuine article or not. "The mark can be seen by the eye and felt by the finger," says Burbidge. "It’s instantly recognisable."
This embossing method was quickly pronounced ideal by Stagecoach. Not only was it a more reliable method of deterring counterfeiters than holograms and fluorescent inks, the cost of ticket production was also well within cost guidelines.
"This method doesn’t have an ongoing cost," says Burbidge. "Because, unlike with holograms and inks where you’ve got the cost of the consumables, once the die-cutting tool’s bought, it’s paid for."
This means that, whereas the wallet seal cost 2.67p when a hologram was incorporated, the new embossed version cost only 1.63p. And as a result of this lower production cost, a further cost saving for Stagecoach could now be offered by introducing advertising on the back of tickets.
"My target at the end of the day is to alleviate the cost for the user," says Burbidge. "As with the other firms we work with, where they become a good issuer of tickets, for example by making sure all tickets that should have finished are all off the buses, we will start paying them a percentage of the advertising revenue."
Not only does Stagecoach have cheaper production costs, it can also look forward to the eventual prospect, once the advertising has been sold by Ticketmedia, of free, and then even money-making tickets.
Stagecoach, then, is a very happy customer. And Ticketmedia, having added 8m tickets a year to the advertising space it can generate profit from, is a happy printer.
And even more advertising space might soon be added as other interested parties get involved. "People have rung in saying ‘we know you’re doing the tickets for Stagecoach, can you do some for us?’," reports Burbidge. "I’m in talks with other big transport firms, including Go Ahead Group, Arriva and First Group, with a view to rolling these kinds of wallet-sealed tickets out for them."
But business gained off the back of the embossed marking technique hasn’t just been from those after the same kinds of tickets. The kudos gained from developing such a simple but ingenious marking has boosted the company more generally, reports Burbidge. "Some customers don’t want this application for now, but they still feel secure knowing we’re able to offer it – they feel secure knowing we’re at the cutting-edge of our sector," he says.
And Burbidge feels he has only just begun to realise the full potential of this new capability. This marking could be used within lots of other sectors, he says, reporting interest already from those wanting to include embossing on events tickets.
Caution, however, will be the name of the game in growing this offering. "We have to be careful about not going for everything all at once," he says. "Expansion can only be through automating the processes we’ve got, so that we can do more. The biggest mistake people make is to invest in lots more staff, then your overheads go through the roof and you’re in trouble if you happen to lose some work."
But Burbidge is nonetheless confident that security embossing will come to be a key facet of his company. "I can take this application everywhere," he says. "This could be the future of Ticketmedia."
I was asked the other day to define ‘management’. Fortunately, I had been skimming through a management guru’s book and so I was able to quote a suitably impressive sounding definition. What struck me was how such a simple sounding question could lead to such a complex and multi-layered answer.
– Philip Thompson, head of BPIF Business
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