October 15, 2013
Fighting Counterfeit Currency and Protecting the Integrity of Our Payments System
The Federal Reserve recently introduced the redesigned $100 note into circulation and has begun an extensive public awareness campaign to acquaint consumers and merchants with the new note. The production of this note marks more than 10 years of effort and technology innovation to make U.S. currency more resistant to counterfeiting. The note incorporates two new security features: a 3-D security ribbon and a color-shifting image. These features are in addition to features such as an embedded security thread, portrait watermarks, and microprinting, introduced in the first redesigned note—the $20—back in 2003. The redesign of the $100 completes the current cycle of note redesign; there are no plans to redesign the $1 and $2 notes due to their low appeal to counterfeiters.
Fighting the constant battle against counterfeiters falls officially to the United States Secret Service, although they certainly rely on support from other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as from the general public. Many people erroneously believe the Secret Service was created in July 1865 as a reaction to President Lincoln’s assassination three months earlier. But the original mission of the Secret Service was to suppress the rampant problem of counterfeit currency being produced by the 1,600-plus private banks. The authority of the Secret Service was broadened two years later to include bootleggers, mail robbers, and others conducting fraudulent activities against the federal government. The Secret Service wasn’t given official responsibility for executive protection until the early 1900s, following the assassination of President William McKinley.
How big is the counterfeiting problem? It is constant, even though electronic financial crimes have more lucrative payoffs and are more difficult to investigate and prosecute. Over the last 10 years, the Secret Service has seized more than $295 million in counterfeit notes. The Secret Service investigates every counterfeiting report since it is often a series of individual reports that leads to a trail of counterfeiting activity by a criminal moving over a geographic area.
Criminals still employ crude counterfeiting techniques, but improvements in printer technology have made detecting counterfeit bills more difficult. Early counterfeiting deterrence relied on the skill needed to operate an offset printing press, along with the high costs of these printers. Now, the weapon of choice of counterfeiters is the advanced laser printer. Since these printers are capable of producing high-quality graphics, the development of the additional anti-counterfeiting technologies now incorporated in the new $100 note (as well as the redesigned $50, $20, $10, and $5 notes) was necessary in this continuous challenge to stay ahead of the criminals.
At Portals and Rails, we urge all financial institutions to maintain communication with your consumer and business customers about the challenges that counterfeit currency present and the steps to take should they come across a note that appears suspicious.
By David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
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