An electron microscope scan of a fake TTC token shows the letter "t" is incomplete. ((University of Toronto))

A sophisticated counterfeit TTC token obtained by CBC News underscores the challenges faced by the transit agency as it tries to deal with a problem that is costing it hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

The token, at first glance, looks virtually identical to a regular Toronto Transit Commission token. The two even weigh the same.

But a closer examination carried out by the University of Toronto's Materials Science and Engineering Department reveals a number of differences.

A look through an electron microscope revealed:

  • The top of the second "t" in Toronto appears to be cut off.
  • The ridges found on the outside edges of the fake token aren't as clearly defined as those on real ones.
  • The spacing of the letters is not consistent.

Inferior die

Zhirui Wang, who oversaw the analysis, said the inaccuracies in the lettering and the scratches were probably due to an inferior die used by the counterfeiter.


The imperfections in the fake TTC token, left, were likely caused by the use of an inferior die, says the U of T's Zhirui Wang. ((Ken Sum-Kuriyama/CBC))

Wang's team also was able to determine the composition of the fake token and found that nickel, which is used in the real token to ensure durability, was virtually absent in the fake.

Nickel is generally more expensive than metals like zinc or copper, found in abundance in the fake version.

Still, he estimates it may have cost up to $100,000 to produce these tokens, so counterfeiters would have to sell a lot to make a profit.

Lee Flohr, a recent journalism graduate, said he bought fake tokens from someone who was selling them for $2 each. An adult fare normally costs $3 and legitimate tokens can be bought in batches for $2.50 each. 

Flohr said the seller told him the fake tokens would not work if he put them through the automatic reader in subway turnstiles, but he could drop them into a fare box manned by an operator.

Flohr was evasive when asked who sold him the tokens.

"The deal is based on who you know … these people are probably very well-connected and all it takes is for one person to know one person to know one person and [the sale] can happen — which turned out to be the case for me," he said.

'Criminal activity'

TTC spokesman Brad Ross confirmed that an automatic turnstile reader would catch the fakes but it was next to impossible for bus, streetcar or subway staff to catch the fake if it is dropped into a regular fare box.

"I think what this demonstrates certainly is the level of sophistication that counterfeiters will go to beat the system," Ross said.

"I think the important thing is for the TTC to acknowledge is that we know there is a problem and we are working hard to bring an end to it."

On average, 2,000 fake tokens are used on the TTC every day, he said.

In attempt to thwart counterfeiting three years ago, the TTC switched from the monochromatic token to the bi-metallic model that is used today. The switch appeared to be largely successful, said Ross, until about the summer of 2009.

That's when there were rumblings the TTC would discontinue the use of paper tickets, which themselves were being counterfeited on a large scale.

Ross urged the public to only purchase tokens from the TTC or an authorized reseller.

"If somebody is trying to sell you tokens at a reduced rate … you should suspect that perhaps these tokens aren't real, and that now you yourself are now engaging in criminal activity by a purchasing a counterfeit product," he said.

Ross said he hopes the introduction of a "smart fare card" in the coming years will put an end to counterfeiting.

  Real token  Counterfeit token
 Element Per cent weight (inner core) Per cent weight (inner core)
 Copper 73.19 62.6 
 Zinc 23.04 36.27
 Nickel 2.36 0.31
 Silicon 0.24 0.10
 Aluminum 1.18 0.72
  Per cent weight (outer ring) Per cent weight (outer ring)
 Aluminum 95.65 97.86
 Silicon 1.12 0.95
 Magnesium 2.90 0.87
 Copper 0.33 0.33

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Source: University of Toronto Department of Materials Science and Engineering