Although the average American may not think about it on a daily basis, it would come as no surprise to most that counterfeiting U.S. currency is an industry that is alive and well today. There is a reason the $10 bill is up for a redesign; it’s a security measure to try and keep ahead of counterfeiters, and anyone who has used a larger bill in retail will have seen the special black “markers” that cashiers use to check currency. If it comes out yellow or brown, you’re good to go. Black, and the bill is a dud.
And while there are various measures in place to distinguish counterfeits from genuine bills in our economy, counterfeiters still find ways to keep pace with anti-counterfeiting measures. The history of this struggle is captured in Bob McCabe’s anticipated book, Counterfeiting and Technology: A History of the Long Struggle Between Paper-Money Counterfeiters and Security Printing, where the “ping-pong” of counterfeiting and anti-counterfeiting is taken back to its inception with the creation of paper money. From day one counterfeiters have been using ingenuity and even artistry to copy currency, including hand-drawing, bleaching, ironing, steaming, cutting and pasting, and fabricating. It is illegal and dangerous to the economy—but to the counterfeiters, it is an art form.
Jonathan Franklin, the Chilean reporter for The Guardian, recently reported on Peruvian gangs that counterfeit $100 bills for transport across borders into the United States. As Franklin writes, “Joel Quispe [a counterfeiter] sells his art for pennies on the dollar. . . . Every print . . . is meticulously designed and beautifully drawn.” He is referring to, of course, a counterfeiter generating uncut sheets of $100 bills. He is a master of his art, “a perfectionist who uses bonded paper, watermarks and gloriously intricate typography. He has proven a master at mass marketing, producing thousands of copies.”
Lima, where the counterfeiting operation is located, is considered by the U.S. Secret Service to be “the world’s leading producer of counterfeit dollars.”
Franklin goes on to report how the counterfeiters are able to churn out millions of dollars in $100 bills—in no more than a week, with a dozen people or less. He interviews the counterfeiters as well as Don Brewer, former agent of the Secret Service and head of the agency’s anti-counterfeiting division. Both the counterfeiters and Brewer use terms that one could use for a respected creator: highest quality, skilled, artistic, meticulous. It is a highly profitable market, if you can keep up with the constantly changing currency security features. But keep up they do—Franklin states that “innovations are volleyed back and forth as the U.S. government serves up a new round of holograms, floating ink and security strips, while the forgers fire back by reverse engineering those same features.” This is a battle that has been going on for centuries. “It’s not a match likely to end anytime soon,” Franklin reports, reciprocating with a quote from Brewer: “Every time a new design would come out, we would have an informal pool on how soon it would be counterfeited.”
While the struggle continues between officials and counterfeiters, the “threat” to our banking system is minimal. The bills circulate on what Brewer calls the “retail” level but do not make it further than that. The counterfeit bills are picked up automatically by more stringent anti-counterfeiting detection processes in counting machines. Nevertheless, the Secret Service and police officials remain vigilant, as the biggest threat of counterfeit bills is to the integrity of the dollar. “The dollar stands for the integrity of the U.S.,” Brewer claims, “and people everywhere depend on that.”
See Jonathan Franklin’s entire article at The Guardian.
Caitlyn Trautwein is Senior Associate Editor at Whitman Publishing.