Digital printers let counterfeiters operate with ease

Technology (and uniform bill sizes) make American paper money too easy to fake

Last October, the Federal Reserve started shipping the first batches of its new, improved and hopefully difficult-to-counterfeit $100 bill.

At the time, it was understood that this was directed primarily at international counterfeiters, since the American $100 bill is one of the most common counterfeit notes on the worldwide market. By contrast, among domestic counterfeiters the most commonly faked bill is the $20. When we told you about the new $100 bill last year, we said this:

Counterfeiting paper money has always been more complicated than merely printing pages on a photocopier. The “paper” US currency’s printed on is actually more like a cottony fabric, woven from fibers with very specific colors and textures (look at a dollar bill through a strong magnifying glass; you’ll see what we’re talking about). This cloth-like paper is made only by Crane & Company in a (presumably heavily guarded) facility somewhere in Massachusetts.

In the U.S., you’ll occasionally find relatively small-scale counterfeiters who bleach authentic one- and five-dollar bills and then reprint the cottony dollar paper in higher denominations.

But it so happens that part of what we said there is now obsolete: once you bleach those authentic $5 bills (or get some other source of “dollar paper”), counterfeiting money actually is about as simple as printing pages on a photocopier — or a digital printer, actually.

Make life easier

Bloomberg News this week ran an article explaining how low-cost, high-quality computer printers have made life easier for counterfeiters — or made it easier for anyone to be a counterfeiter. Like Richmond, Virginia resident Tarshema Bryce, who pleaded guilty to several counts of counterfeiting last month. Here's how Bloomberg described her technique:

First, the 34-year-old hairstylist and janitor took $5 bills with a specific watermark and soaked them with “Purple Power” degreaser. Next, she scrubbed off the ink with a toothbrush. After drying the now-blank notes with a hair dryer, she fed them through a Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Co. 3-in-1 inkjet printer that emblazoned them with scanned images of $50 or $100 bills.

The counterfeits looked and felt real and could pass any rudimentary test by a retail clerk.

Before computers and printers became commonplace, counterfeiting money was extremely difficult and required significant investments in expensive equipment: even if you had the right paper, you also needed (among other things) the right type of ink, a full-fledged printing press plus a place to store and operate it without attracting notice, engraved plates to reproduce the bills, and an engraver with artistic skill and talent sufficient to make those plates in the first place. (And unless you were already fantastically wealthy and a genius polymath, you'd need a lot of other people working with you; successful old-school counterfeiting generally wasn't a one-person operation.)

Then, once you and your partners had poured all that time, trouble and expense into your counterfeiting enterprise, you'd have to run a fairly large-scale operation just to recoup your costs, let alone make a [fraudulent and highly illegal] profit.

That's still how the majority of counterfeit U.S. money is made overseas. Peru and North Korea, for example, are both suspected of producing large numbers of so-called “superdollars”: counterfeit $100 bills of such high quality, their counterfeit status can only be detected through sophisticated forensic analysis.

But domestic counterfeiters are more likely to be small-scale, casual operations. As a certain Secret Service agent said to Bloomberg: “Why would you print up a couple of million in counterfeit? Depending on the technology you are using, you could just print up some to go out on a Friday night.”

And whatever technology you're using today is pretty much guaranteed to be laughably old-fashioned, clunky and obsolete only a few years from now.

Perhaps the Federal Reserve will have to take the anti-counterfeiting techniques it uses in the new $100 bill and apply them to all paper money by then — or simply abandon its current practice of printing all denominations on bills of the same size.

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