How Photoshop Helped Save My Dad from eBay Fraud

My dad is an avid stamp collector. While he does have some US stamps in his collection, he mainly focuses on older stamps from China.

He used to purchase stamps exclusively from reputable stamp companies, but recently he’s been looking for good deals on rare stamps through eBay.

In the world of stamps, errors often cause the stamp to be worth much more than its face value since they’re highly sought after by collectors.

One such stamp is a 1962 stamp showing Tsai Lun, the inventor of paper. Right before the stamps were to begin the printing process, they discovered that the birth date had an extra character that erroneously listed the birth date as BC rather than AD. They had to correct the printing plates manually, but omitted one of them, causing a single error stamp to be printed with each batch.

Here’s a photograph of an actual error stamp compared to a “photoshopped” version showing the difference:

That single erroneous character causes this stamp to be listed among the rarest of Chinese stamps, and causes its value to be upwards of $5,000 rather than tens of dollars for the normal stamp.

Earlier this week my dad bid in an auction for one of these stamps. While he knows eBay is filled with counterfeit goods, everything seemed to point towards this stamp being legitimate. The user who had it up for auction was a top-rated eBay seller with over 1,000+ feedback ratings and a 100% positive feedback history. He also had a number of other listings for much more expensive stamps. After bidding $1,000 for this $5,000 stamp, my dad ended up winning for $400.

While he was happy about his “steal”, we both felt unease regarding whether or not the stamp was genuine. Luckily for us, the listing had a photograph of the stamp. Here’s the photo of the stamp side-by-side with a photo of a genuine error stamp:

At this point, my background in Photoshop came into play. I realized I could examine the stamps extremely closely and compare them using Photoshop. In fact, Photoshop has a feature that is perfect for this type of comparison. It’s called Auto-Align Layers. What it does is magically align multiple layers based on similar features. Here’s what I did:

  1. Have each stamp as a separate layer
  2. Select the two layers
  3. Click Edit and then Auto-Align Layers
  4. Set Projection to “Auto” and click Ok

Voila! The two stamps became magically aligned, allowing me to turn the top layer on and off for easy comparison. Here’s the exact same comparison after Photoshop’s auto alignment (hover your mouse over it to compare):

Minor variations in the appearance of a stamp are acceptable, since there are slight variations in the printing plates. Also, though we were initially suspicious of the difference in color, we discovered that it was probably introduced in the imaging process after finding the exact same color variation in an official stamp book.

However, what caught my eye was the single error character in the upper left hand corner. If you examine it during the comparison, you’ll see that it looks different and is shifted upwards in the eBay auction version. We suddenly realized that the same was in fact a legitimate stamp… A legitimate non-error stamp with the error character added in.

With this evidence my dad gave the seller a phone call (yeah, they responded with a number when we asked for it), and confronted them about the forgery. They feigned ignorance and stated that they didn’t know much about stamps, which was hardly believable considering they had other listings for $80,000 stamps. However, they were willing to cancel the transaction and did so immediately.

What I realized through this whole experience was how useful Photoshop can be for fields seemingly unrelated to photography or graphics. I’m sure there are still many stamp experts out there who use magnifying glasses to try and detect counterfeit or altered stamps, while Photoshop can do the same thing much more accurately and efficiently.

Viva Photoshop!

  • Yij

    Wow. Sounds the photoshop is very useful. Great job.

  • commatose

    That's amazing. Good job investigating that one!

  • Delaney Gates

    Nicely done! And thanks for sharing, too. Love stories like this.

  • VonLog

    nice! :)

  • mikehigdon

    Could definitely see the difference in the side by side comparison, but a genuine test is hard to argue with. Glad the seller didn't give you an issue. Probably should still give them a low rating to reflect their forgery. Who knows how many other stamps are fake.

  • lucato

    Interesting article. Congratulations!
    Another thing that I think can be an evidence is the wart/spot on the nose that is missing in the “unknown” stamp and it has on the genuine, error and actual stamps. ;0)

  • deltaflux

    You should really forward that seller's details on to the police, who knows how many others he's trying to con!

  • QuBe

    A Chinese counterfeit on eBay….what are the odds…

  • billselak

    Well done. Thanks for sharing. I love the mouse-over. Could you also detect the forgery by changing the top layer's properties to Overlay (after Auto-Align Layers)?

  • Name

    Don't forget about the mole on his nose that migrated to his cheek ;)

  • Michael Zhang

    It does cause that character to become somewhat muddled, but it's more difficult to pick out differences than if you simply toggle the layer.

  • billselak

    Yeah, I suppose toggling layers is the simplest way to go.

    Without getting bogged down into the details, this is a great idea, and the
    auto-align is used in a very cool way.

  • smudgechris

    When I initially read the title and saw that it was about stamps I actually thought the story was going to be about your Dad selling a stamp, realising he'd sold the wrong one, and photoshopping in the extra character so's not to be accused of fraud haha!

    Cool story and nice to see Ebay sellers get what's coming to them. I hope your reported this to the relevant people! Too many people get taken for a ride on ebay, which is a shame as there's some good stuff out there!

  • ulfwolf

    Great post.

    Perhaps I can just add to this that the best way to guard against being ripped off by online sales or auctions of any kind, eBay inlcuded, is to use a bona fide online escrow company. Although it does add some cost, that will take uncertainty out of the transaction.

    For my money, the best bona fide online escrow (and there seems to be ten fraudulent escrow sites for every bona fide one) is probably ( In fact, it’s the only one that eBay recommends.

    Take care,

    Ulf Wolf

  • danm

    CS4: Crime Scene Investigation!


    You were lucky to get a photo with not much perspective distortion too! But yeah pretty interesting nonetheless!