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Decoder uncovers stamps' secrets

Remember saving box tops to send in for that decoder ring so you could read the secret message? Well that bit of nostalgia is back, thanks to the U.S. Postal Service.

It isn't a ring, of course, and you don't get it in Cracker Jack boxes. But you can buy a special decoder to see hidden images on some stamps."It was done primarily as a anti-counterfeit measure, but we knew that collectors of all kinds would enjoy it as an interesting design element as well," said postal spokesman Barry Ziehl.

Since you normally can't see the hidden image, the post office has started selling decoders to interested people. For $4.95 collectors can get a special lens that reveals the hidden message when placed over the stamp.

"If we had made it a decoder ring it would have been really hot," laughed Ziehl. "We have had serious interest from collectors and the general public."

The first hidden image was on the 32-cent U.S. Air Force stamp issued in September. With the decoder, viewers can see the letters USAF repeated over and over across the face of the stamp.

It isn't simple, though. The decoder has to be turned slightly from side to side to get the image to appear.

The five-stamp movie monsters set issued Sept. 30 also has hidden images, including ghostly faces seemingly floating across the stamps.

Ziehl said the agency plans to include the images "on select issues in 1998 and beyond," adding that the post office likes to vary its security measures.

The special images prevent counterfeiting because they cannot easily be reproduced. Several countries use the technology to safeguard such things as stocks, bonds, money and stamps.

The decoder lens is made of acrylics and contains nearly a thousand tiny lenses set to a specific focal length to allow the image to be seen.

The decoders can only be purchased from the Postal Service's Philatelic Fulfillment Service Center, P.O. Box 419636, Kansas City, Mo., 64179; or by calling 1-800-STAMP-24.