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Know your money: counterfeiting diminished, but is still around

Counterfeiting of money is one of the oldest crimes in history. It was a serious problem during the 19th century when banks issued their own U.S. currency. During the Civil War there were approximately 1,600 state banks designing and printing their own notes. Each note carried a different design, making it difficult to distinguish the 4,000 varieties of counterfeits from the 7,000 varieties of genuine notes. It was estimated that one-third of all currency in circulation was counterfeit.

The adoption of a national currency in 1863 was meant to solve the counterfeiting problem. However, the national currency was soon counterfeited so extensively it became necessary for the government to take enforcement measures. On July 5, 1865, the United States Secret Service was established to suppress counterfeiting.

Although counterfeiting has been substantially curtailed since the creation of the Secret Service, this crime continues to represent a potential danger to the nation’s economy and its citizens. Production methods used in counterfeiting operations have evolved over the years from the traditional method of offset printing to color copiers and, more recently, to scanners, computers and inkjet printers.

The Secret Service has noted that many of today’s counterfeiters have moved from the traditional method of offset printing, which has its own set of required skills, to computer-generated counterfeiting. Today’s counterfeiter is able to produce counterfeit currency with basic computer training and skills afforded by trial and error, and public education. Counterfeit passing statistics are likely to increase because of several factors: these instruments of production are more readily available, the capabilities of these machines continue to improve and the techniques are more readily understood by an increasingly larger segment of the population, including those with criminal intent.

Advanced technology in the office machine copier/printer industry has made it possible for even unskilled operators to produce high-resolution color reproductions. The widespread availability of such copiers/printers has increased the incidence of the manufacturing and passing of office machine notes.

Copiers/printers using toner technology generally employ the electrostatic transfer of toner (dry plastic powder) to the paper. This results in the image area resting on top of the surface of the paper. In addition, small particles of toner can often be seen, under magnification (approximately 20x power), outside the image area. Toner copiers/ printers tend to leave a slightly blurry image and not the crisp clear image of the authentic currency.

There are three basic types of toner notes: (1) black and white, (2) monochromatic, and (3) full color. Black and white copier notes bear images produced by black toner only and lack the color of a true bill. Monochromatic utilizes single color toners. (i.e., red, green, blue and brown). Treasury seals and serial numbers on counterfeit notes will appear as a solid shade of green, rather than a combination of yellow and cyan. The back plate often is a mixture of green and black toner. Full color notes bear images produced by utilizing a combination of yellow, magenta (bright pink), cyan (light blue) and black toners.

Ink Jet copiers/printers spray tiny droplets of ink from the printer head through a small gap of air onto the paper to form the image. Because the ink is sprayed on the images will lack the fine detail and will appear somewhat blurry.

The public has a role in maintaining the integrity of U.S. currency. You can help guard against the threat from counterfeiters by becoming more familiar with United States currency. Look at the money you receive. Compare a suspect note with a genuine note of the same denomination and series, paying attention to the quality of printing and paper characteristics. Look for differences, not similarities.

The genuine portrait appears lifelike and stands out distinctly from the background. The counterfeit portrait is usually lifeless and flat. Details merge into the background which is often too dark or mottled. On a genuine bill, the saw-tooth points of the Federal Reserve and Treasury seals are clear, distinct, and sharp. The counterfeit seals may have uneven, blunt, or broken saw-tooth points. The fine lines in the border of a genuine bill are clear and unbroken. On the counterfeit, the lines in the outer margin and scrollwork may be blurred and indistinct. Genuine serial numbers have a distinctive style and are evenly spaced. The serial numbers are printed in the same ink color as the Treasury Seal. On a counterfeit, the serial numbers may differ in color or shade of ink from the Treasury seal. The numbers may not be uniformly spaced or aligned.

Genuine currency paper has tiny red and blue fibers embedded throughout. Often counterfeiters try to simulate these fibers by printing tiny red and blue lines on their paper. Close inspection reveals, however, that on the counterfeit note the lines are printed on the surface, not embedded in the paper. It is illegal to reproduce the distinctive paper used in the manufacturing of United States currency.

Genuine paper currency is sometimes altered in an attempt to increase its face value. One common method is to glue numerals from higher denomination notes to the corners of lower denomination notes. These bills are also considered counterfeit, and those who produce them are subject to the same penalties as other counterfeiters. If you suspect you are in possession of a raised note: Compare the denomination numerals on each corner with the denomination written out at the bottom of the note (front and back) and through the Treasury seal. Compare the suspect note to a genuine note of the same denomination and series year, paying particular attention to the portrait, vignette and denomination numerals.

Other features are present on currency of denominations of five dollars and higher. Hold the bill up to a light. You will see a small strip of plastic running vertically embedded in the paper. Printed upon the strip will be the denomination of bill. Looking to the right of the portrait there will be a watermark showing the denomination of the bill or another likeness of the portrait. The watermark should disappear when moved away from the light source.

Additional information on special markings can be found at:

Mike Reitan is the assistant West Fargo police chief