It seems we can hardly go a week without hearing of new counterfeit coins surfacing. It is a problem as old as the hobby it continually undermines. Keeping collectible coins honest is especially troublesome today because counterfeiters have become quite adept at thwarting the security precautions employed by third party graders (TPGs). It is a predicament for collectors and dealers alike as it creates instances of distrust between buyer and seller.
The grading companies attempt to combat fakers’ efforts with a barrage of security precautions. TPGs use features like holograms, micro printing, serial numbers that are searchable on their websites, special composition holders that can be detected and fakes weeded out, and QR codes. Unfortunately, none of these precautions are adequate, and all of them are able to be bypassed, faked, or are a pain in the butt to utilize.
A good security solution needs to have two features; it must be easy to use and nearly impossible to replicate. Enter Near Field Communication (NFC) tags.
NFC tags are paper-thin electronic storage chips that hold small amounts of data. An NFC enabled device (i.e. smartphone or tablet computer) generate a small electromagnetic field that, when it passes close to a tag, acts as the tag’s power source, activating it. The tag then transmits the small amount of data to the device.
It is the same kind of technology employed by security card readers on office buildings — the kind where you wave your ID badge in front of a card reader to unlock the door — only smaller.
Most high-end smartphones and tablets are equipped with NFC technology. A list of NFC capable devices can be found here.
Using NFC as a form of coin security and authentication would be simple. Here is how it could work:
- TPGs insert an NFC tag into the label used in the coin holder (slab). The tag will have been pre-programmed with a unique, randomized, and encrypted identification code.
- The coin enthusiast (user) downloads a free app from the TPG to their NFC equipped device.
- When visiting a coin show/shop, the user turns the app on. If they find a coin that piques their interest, all it takes is a wave of the smartphone or tablet to read the code.
- The app then pops up on the screen and its software takes less than a second to de-crypt the NFC tag’s code and verify that it is authentic.
The key to the TPG’s app would have to be that it never displays the authentication code from the NFC tag. It would simply give the user a yes/no answer about the slab being genuine. That way, if a counterfeiter had downloaded the app in an effort to learn the authentication codes, it would not work.
This is one of many examples of how technology can enhance the collecting experience. For a pursuit that is largely about study and education, numismatics is rather insular. It is unfortunate that our hobby has fallen behind the times, but it’s never too late to turn it all around.
Kendall Bailey writes about numismatics at The Coin Blog.