Faking it – counterfeiting money using computer printers
On or about April 6, 1995, the defendant James Taftsiou purchased a Tektronix Model Phaser 540,” says the District of New Jersey federal grand jury indictment. This top-quality laser printer, which cost him $9,000, had just come onto the market. At Taftsiou’s trial it was established that he had also paid $6,000 for a computer and $600 for a paper cutter. In October he bought a second paper cutter because, he said, he’d worn out the blade on the first one. Why not simply resharpen? Apparently, Taftsiou felt he could afford a little extravagance; he was, by then, a self-made millionaire. He was also being watched by the Secret Service.
The chase began on Memorial Day weekend, when a prostitute walked into the Atlantic City police station complaining that a man at a local Quality Inn had paid her with phony $100 bills. Police and Secret Service agents raided the hotel and arrested seven limousine-riding high rollers who had arrived from New York. They also confiscated more than $20,000 in counterfeit bills. During the months that followed, more than 20 people were arrested in Atlantic City and Las Vegas after attempting to pass similar counterfeit bills. Agents finally traced the source to Bardul Taftsiou, James’s father, who lived in Brooklyn. They began watching his house in October. On November 18 they saw five family members pile into a station wagon; the agents followed them down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City. Inside the Tropworld Casino, the Taftsious inserted fake $50 bills into slot machines, played a few times, cashed out, and exchanged me tokens for genuine money. Agents let the family play for more than an hour, then arrested them. In December authorities raided the house in Brooklyn and confiscated the computer and laser printer.
During the trial, which started in January 1997, Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Wiener alleged that the Taftsious made and passed $1.2 million in counterfeit money to cover several hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts. On March 5 the jury convicted Bardul, age 54, and James Taftsiou, 32, who are now serving 51- and 54-month prison sentences, respectively. The jury acquitted Bardul’s wife and daughter, and the prosecution dropped charges against his 80-year-old mother.
Every year Atlantic City’s casinos devour $30 billion–cash only. It moves quickly through employees’ hands or anonymously through machines. All kinds of counterfeiting experiments show up first in this hothouse environment. The Taftsiou case was not only the largest in the city’s history to date, but it also raised eyebrows over the method used to manufacture such quantifies of money. Desktop digital printing had already shown up on the counterfeiting horizon, but it was not yet the medium of choice for large operations. For a long time, officials worried mainly about photocopiers.
Tom Ferguson, acting director for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the agency that makes U.S. currency, remembers how “everybody in this business, in the late seventies and eighties, was seeing huge color copying machines.” By 1985 two companies were selling commercial versions for around $40,000. “We knew that these would be getting smaller and cheaper,” Ferguson says, “and currency people were saying, `Uh-oh, how can we defeat them?'” Panels were convened; committees reported. Researchers began testing ideas for making currency more difficult to copy.
In 1993 a committee on next-generation currency design–after polling experts in the computer-imaging industry, bankers, Secret Service agents, currency makers, and other relevant types–put out a disturbing report: “The total value of counterfeits produced by color copiers and printers is small now, but it has been doubling every year.” In 1990 counterfeiters produced $1 million in fake banknotes on “office machines”–copiers, laser printers, and ink-jet systems. “In 1991 this doubled to $2 million, and in 1992 the amount increased to between $6 million and $8 million.” The same kind of growth marks the early stages of disease epidemics. Or think of bacteria growing on food at a picnic: an insignificant number, doubling every few minutes, can make egg salad a hazard in two hours. The committee concluded that office-machine counterfeits might reach $2 billion by the year 2000. “Obviously,” wrote the experts, “such a large amount of counterfeiting would cause severe problems for the economy.”
To head off any chance of a run on the dollar, the Treasury Department approved the first noticeable changes to U.S. currency in 70 years. New, difficult-to-reproduce features, such as larger pictures with more intricate backgrounds and watermarks, will appear on all large notes. The redesigned $100 bill came out in 1996 and the $50 note in 1997, but consumers don’t see many of those. The greatest shock to eyes numbed by the familiar greenback is just arriving now, with the new $20 bill. Lower denominations should follow.
Why make the changes in design so obvious? One reason is that currency experts want people to inspect their money more carefully. That’s the first line of defense against counterfeits, but it is not a perfect solution. As agents in the Secret Service often say, “It’s a quality-of-life issue.” There once was a time when people traveling by plane didn’t have to wait in line at security checkpoints, walk through metal detectors, empty pockets, or show a photo ID. The intrusion of so-called security devices on your life will intensify if counterfeiting continues to rise. And the loss of quick, convenient, trusty cash will be a far greater collective nuisance than airport security–a kind of robbery that doesn’t show up in crime statistics.
Checkout lines will move slower if customers actually inspect their money and merchants begin holding bills up to look for watermarks, peering through a magnifying glass at microprint, checking the security thread under ultraviolet light to make sure it glows yellow or red, or swiping notes through validating machines. Your money may also be rejected more often by fussier bill changers and vending machines. And your next computer, scanner, or printer may be more expensive and complex than necessary because of built-in electronics designed to thwart its use by “casual” counterfeiters.
Money works best as a medium of exchange when people perceive it as safe and stable. Even the hint of a counterfeiting problem can undermine confidence, adding one more nudge to a downward spiral in the quality of life. It’s no wonder that counterfeiting has always been a great social evil, punishable by hanging in seventeenth-century England and by decapitation during China’s early Ming dynasty. And it’s no surprise that the currency-making business, as Ferguson says, tends to be “a very conservative, traditional industry.” Yet already he is looking ahead to the next next-generation design, which he expects will be needed in seven to ten years.
Some suggestions for further changes, if adopted, would spell the end of paper money as we know it–hardly the stuff of stability. Printing on plastic, for example, would allow designers to add translucent effects to foil counterfeiting. And plastic would make a suitable base for holograms. Another possibility involves three-dimensional encrypted patterns, readable by small machines, that would uniquely identify each bill and allow it to be validated at every transaction–or give machines another excuse to reject your money. Would such security against counterfeiting be worth the cost?
Only this much is clear: “There’s now a need for rapid change and adoption of new technologies,” Ferguson says. If you were just starting a career in currency manufacture, “you couldn’t pick a more exciting time.” He means that in a positive sense. In 1974, when Ferguson first started working at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, even the most senior employees had been cranking out the same old cabbage all their lives. So naturally, opportunities for innovation seem exciting. Unfortunately, another reason the business has become so lively is that more and more ordinary citizens now have an opportunity to share, with 2,600 bureau employees, the thrill of printing money. That makes the business exciting in the sense of a horse race.
When you visit the bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., the government horse appears to be unbeatable. The main event–the crush of hard steel against pliant paper–you sense not with your eyes but your ears. Twelve high-speed presses, going full tilt in me cavernous basement, make a stupendous amount of noise. Stoked with paper and ink by three shifts of workers around the clock, five days a week, those presses manage to keep pace With the worldwide demand for U.S. dollars. Their continuous rolling thunder forces workers to wear ear protection. It’s no wonder. All around, large spinning rollers, bearing down with 40 tons of pressure per square inch, push currency paper onto engraved steel plates so hard that it comes out crisply embossed. The enormous pressure stretches the sturdy paper’s cotton and linen fibers. It also infuses green or black ink below the paper’s surface, bonded onto the fibers. This high-impact method of printing, called intaglio, is required by law for U.S. currency. It produces the raised, colored, fine-lined patterns that help give freshly printed notes their distinctive look and feel.
Amateur counterfeiters, and all but a very few pros, have found these effects impossible to reproduce. Have you ever heard that genuine currency has clean, sharp printing? It’s not quite true. Look closely at the black rectangle containing the words FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE on a $20 bill, for instance, and you will often see, instead of sharp borden, feathery projections of ink into unprinted areas of the paper. If you try to reproduce it with standard photo-offset techniques, you lose the finest trespassing wisps; edges then look too clean.
Ink-jet printers lose the feathering entirely; it disappears in a scatter of dots. And no easy printing technique yields the ridges that make the surface of genuine bills feel slightly rough. But while you’re at it, look closer. With a magnifying glass, examine the outer line around the portrait of Jackson. That “line” should resolve into a long string of printed letters: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, repeatedly. Down in the bureau’s basement, a supervisor peers at the microengraving on a plate corresponding to those words. Then he looks up and yells into the deafening murk: “The fact that we can print that amazes everybody.”
Printing currency the legal way requires a hefty investment: the bureau values its working capital (land, buildings, equipment) at $361 million. Each of the 12 intaglio presses in Washington roars through 8,000 newspaper-size sheets of currency stock an hour, and 12 more in the newer Fort Worth plant do another 10,000. Breathtaking rivers of green-inked sheets pour from the presses onto conveyor belts, 32 notes a sheet. In the old days, they used to rush past the trancelike gaze of stoic inspectors who snapped to life when anything looked odd, yanking out the offending sheets.
Now new bills cascade through optical scanners that reject sheets with defects too subtle for humans to notice; the survivors are stamped with a serial number and sliced into individual bills. They then whip through letter presses with movable type, where each receives a unique, bright green serial number. The finished bills are finally stacked up in piles of a thousand. Four piles, bundled and shrink-wrapped, make a “brick”–4,000 compacted notes roughly the length of a cinder block. Workers load bricks onto pallets, and forklifts haul them to a vault. On an average day the bureau prints 38 million Federal Reserve notes, nearly 10,000 bricks. Stacked straight up, they would stand 2.6 miles high. Last year the total came to 9.6 billion notes–662 miles of money.
Seven floors up in an annex building, the bureau’s quieter work proceeds at a snail’s pace. Under traditional artisan’s skylights, 13 skilled engravers cut intricate lines in steel plates by hand. Some specialize in spidery scrollwork, some in the contours and cross-hatchings of varying thicknesses that make up portraits, some in the ruled precision of numbers and letters. Counterfeiters, of course, would never manage all this by hand. “Even the same engraver can’t cut exactly the same portrait every time,” says Ferguson. “It’s unique, like a fingerprint.” A single small portrait for a bill might take one engraver six to seven months to complete. But since the currency rarely changes, most keep busy on other jobs like cutting new plates for postage stamps or White House invitations.
Engravers have been cutting metal for intaglio printing since the fifteenth century. Hardly anyone does it for a living anymore, yet Ferguson expects this kind of engraving to continue at the bureau indefinitely. New technologies will augment images on new bills, but portraits will remain hand-engraved. “We are always concerned,” he says, “that we don’t alter that sense of `This is a U.S. $20 bill.'”
On the other hand, the bureau is studying new techniques to produce better currency and make it easier to detect fakes. But while some covert features may, for security reasons, be unique to U.S. bills, the Treasury selects only those visible features that have appeared first in some other country. “We can’t afford to be the guinea pig,” Ferguson explains, “because our currency system is so big. It’s a huge investment to change anything.” Since U.S. notes cost only 4 cents apiece to manufacture, the Treasury does have leeway to add well-proved features. “Low volume is a huge driver of costs,” Ferguson says. “Japan, for example, spends about 19 cents per note.” Australia, right now, is spearheading the push to plastic money, while reducing costs by printing similar notes for Thailand, Indonesia, and New Zealand. Finland has taken another step, embedding kinegrams (two-dimensional images that change when tilted) in the paper. U.S. currency experts are following those experiments with keen interest.
“There are advantages but also disadvantages in security with plastics,” Ferguson says. “We don’t know yet. We’re years away from making that decision.” An Australian note he pulls from his wallet has a transparent window, a traditional-looking portrait, and fine-lined ridges that give the plastic a pleasant, paperlike feel. Tests show that the intaglio presses can print on plastic stock. But then, so can ink-jet printers.
COUNTERFEITERS HAVE MUCH LESS invested in overhead; they’ve plunged headlong into new technologies. And so far this year, according to the Secret Service, the amount of counterfeit currency successfully passed into domestic circulation has jumped 25 percent over last year’s rate. If the trend continues, $40 million in bogus will be culled from the money supply, versus $32 million last year. Alert consumers and merchants find, at most, 10 percent. Cash handlers at banks identify the lion’s share of counterfeits, about 60 percent. Scanning machines at the 12 regional and 24 branch offices of the Federal Reserve, the bankers’ bank, then remove all the rest.
In the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, for example, are nine of the Fed’s German-made machines. The largest freight elevators in New England cough up cartloads of cash from the vaults. Each machine riffles through 75,000 to 80,000 notes an hour, more than 20 per second. Dropped in stacks onto a moving track, the bills sound like cards being shuffled. Thhhhrip–a hundred scanned. Thhhhrip–another hundred. Of the 24.5 billion pieces scanned and sorted last year, half were $1 bills. They last 18 months in circulation and may be scanned four or five times a year. A $100 bill may be scanned every four years or so; people hold on to them far longer, on average.
Details about how, exactly, these superscanners distinguish good bills from bad are closely guarded. Vending machines, for example, might compare the size of margins on the front and back (looking for telltale out-of-register printing), or scan the portrait, or sense the location of magnetic ink that the bureau uses only in certain parts of the bill. “These machines are much better than that,” says Rosanna Pianalto, a policy analyst at Fed headquarters in Washington, D.C. Each machine has 30 kinds of sensors, and some no doubt pick up covert security features. The scanners’ main task is to identify bills too worn or dirty to remain in circulation; the Fed replaces them with fresh currency. The machines also reject notes that don’t match something specified in their program. These notes might be folded in one comer, say, and not readable there, or genuine bills with some minuscule flaw in printing, or counterfeits. “At the very end,” says Pianalto, “it’s the human eye that actually picks up what a counterfeit is.”
Almost every fake note that anyone reports, anywhere in the world, eventually makes its way to the Secret Service-charged since its formation in 1865 with protecting the integrity of U.S. currency. (Guarding the president came later, after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.) During the Civil War, the U.S. money supply was in a shambles: 1,600 kinds of state and private banknotes circulated as legal tender, a third of them counterfeit. People preferred gold and silver coins, but coins were in short supply. To avoid economic gridlock, the Treasury began issuing the first federal paper currency in 1862, in denominations as low as one cent. Three years later, as counterfeiters were honing their skills on the new greenback challenge, the Secret Service began its mission. Agents suppressed most of the counterfeiting within a few years, and the trend has been downward ever since, except for a brief rise during the Great Depression.
At Secret Service headquarters, a mock from the White House, Dennis Lynch, special agent in charge of the Counterfeit Division, coolly interprets the recent blip his agency has noticed–the 25 percent jump in counterfeits being passed this year. “Counterfeiting has not been, and is not now, a significant economic problem,” Lynch insists. Nowadays, counterfeits make up less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of all circulating U.S. currency. Look at it this way: 32 million counterfeit dollars, in twenties, would be 1.6 million notes–400 bricks a year, pumped into circulation by all the counterfeiters combined. During an average day, in other words, while the Bureau of Engraving and Printing churned out its 2.6-mile-high stack of currency, counterfeiters chimed in with another 4,500 notes, raising the pile 19 more inches. That’s practically nothing. This year they’ve raised their share a few more inches. It’s still not a serious economic problem.
Yet looked at more closely, the recent rise in counterfeiting seems ominous. That’s because it represents not more of the same but a new technology coming into play. While other office-machine methods hold fairly steady, the rate of ink-jet counterfeiting skyrockets. Of counterfeit notes that entered domestic circulation, the ink-jet proportion rose from .5 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 1996 to 19 percent in 1997, and so far this year it’s running 44 percent. “So this is a trend,” he says. “It’s disturbing. We see the state-of-the-art printers getting better every day, not only in quality but also in speed.” From that perspective, the blip looks explosive.
If you own an ink-jet printer and you can’t believe it’s capable of producing a good imitation of the currency you have in your wallet, your printer is outdated. For a few hundred dollars these days, you can buy a good color ink-jet printer that does “nice work,” as Ferguson admits. “Not perfect by any means, but certainly deceptive.” (See “How to Make Funny Money,” page 96.)
An agent comes forward with a cardboard box and dumps its contents on a table–some $50,000 of counterfeit money. It came from Newark, New Jersey, she says, and represents about two weeks’ worth of ink-jet printing nabbed in that city. Apparently a lot of it came from youth gangs, drag pushers, and such. There are hundreds, fifties, twenties, and tens. Each bill looks fairly convincing, all alone. But together in a heap they don’t look right: the color is off, some bills feel smoother than others, some have muddier portrait backgrounds. But all are passable, and the reasons are no mystery. First, as genuine currency gets worn and dirty, the intaglio ridges lose their sharpness and details vanish from portraits. Before long, genuine bills don’t look or feel so very different from good fakes. It’s a myth, in fact, that you should be wary of crisp new bills; many counterfeiters actually strive for the worn look. But they don’t strive all that hard. Lynch guesses that 98 percent of all phony bills passed last year “nave not been able to defeat all the security features,” meaning that the features were either reproduced poorly or not even attempted–no watermark, no security thread, no color-shifting ink in the lower right comer (on fifties and hundreds). And that uncraftsmanlike nonchalance, Lynch says, brings up the second, more important reason these bills get passed: “The American public is not paying attention.”
In the good old days, counterfeiters belonged to an identifiable breed. They knew a lot about printing, a skilled occupation. They spent many hours making plates, ran off huge numbers of fake hundreds, fifties, or twenties to pay for their time plus expensive equipment, and then had to pass all those bills without raising suspicions. In evitably they left a trail–purchasing or gaining inside access to specialized equipment, particular papers, and gobs of black and green ink; recruiting others to help pass the bills; or selling trunkloads of bogus cash at a discount to criminals. The Secret Service could catch those guys with standard gumshoe work. Agents kept tabs on printing establishments, monitored purchases, and milked informants. But nowadays, desktop counterfeiters don’t need to make large print runs that require a billpassing distribution network. Instead they print cash as needed. Even if the cops nab them, the case may not be worth prosecuring. As Lynch knows all too well, at least 25 million ink-jet printers have been sold worldwide, and sales show signs of accelerating. “The nightmare,” he says, “is when the system changes from 500 counterfeit printers passing $100,000 each to 100,000 passing $500 each. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t be in everybody’s basement and den.”
THE NIGHTMARE IS HAPPENING NOW. JUST as the committee on next-generation currency warned, the new printing technology has spawned a new kind of “casual” counterfeiter. “We’ve had elementary school cases,” says a Secret Service agent. “I think it’s going to get worse. Kids three or four years old can do this.” A casual counterfeiter is an ordinary citizen, an opportunist who perceives, correctly or not, a chance to make high profits by taking relatively low risks. The 1993 next-generation committee found it reasonable to conclude, “after considerable inquiry,” that “some individuals, generally not inveterate criminals,” would make counterfeit currency if, in addition to having access to equipment, “the need for temporary funds was great and it was viewed as a benign crime.” Other forms of illegal copying, after all, seem socially acceptable: people routinely ignore the copyright warnings on books, music, and videos. Such an easy fix for a “temporary” shortfall of funds can, of course, become habit-forming. Case histories from Justice Department records contain dozens of piquant examples.
“Cheryl Elizabeth Jackson, age 27, from Hopkins [Minnesota] … pleaded guilty on April 7, 1998, to a misdemeanor charge of passing counterfeit currency. Jackson told the court that she used color copiers at various copy centers in Richfield and Minneapolis to print approximately $2,900 in counterfeit $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills.” Now she faced “maximum potential penalties of one year in prison and/or a $100,000 fine.” That’s about as casual as it gets: pay a visit to the local copy center whenever you need a few extra bucks.
The bigger threat is from those who invest in their own equipment–namely, inexpensive ink-jet systems. When thermal printheads came out in the early 1980s, they brought prices down dramatically because they could be mass-produced by the same techniques used to make computer chips. In a thermal printhead, heat causes a bubble to form in the ink chamber. A pressure wave from the collapsing bubble, traveling through the ink, forces a droplet to spit through the nozzle. Now that those printheads are cheap, color ink-jet printers can be bought for under $100. “This has made color printing available to everyone,” says Annette Jaffe, formerly principal scientist in the Imaging Products Division of Apple Computer. “That’s the problem.” Jaffe drafted the ink-jet part of the nextgeneration currency report in 1993. She is now a “digital-color-imaging consultant” in San Jose, California; she’s also an expert on counterfeiting. “Scanner prices,” she continues, “have come down in the same way.” Today, she points out, you can even buy stand-alone scanners that don’t need a computer; they plug right into an ink-jet or laser printer. “You can hook them together, and you have a color copier”–all for as little as $200, compared with $40,000 in the mid-1980s.
These are not, of course, the best copiers. “There are different market niches, and ink jet has taken over what’s called the very low end,” Jaffe says. “Believe me, there are still limitations to ink jet.” Yet quality no longer matters very much, because the technology has passed an essential threshold. “Why should counterfeiters pay more for better quality, or go to any more trouble? For counterfeiting”–speaking now as if consulting for the bad guys–” `good enough’ is fine.” As long as you can pass a counterfeit note, she says, “you don’t care what happens once that guy has it, right?”
Some counterfeiters might nevertheless be interested in faster printing. Epson printheads, for instance, use piezoelectric modulators–vibrating crystals that make pressure waves without bubbles forming and collapsing. In general, piezoelectric heads print faster than thermal ones. But the most promising technique for faster printing uses the vibrating crystals to disturb a continuous stream of ink, breaking the stream into droplets. The speed of conventional printers is limited by the time it takes liquid at the nozzle to calm down after a droplet is spit out; continuous-jet printers eliminate that step. Although at present such printers are expensive and slow, improvements may eventually make them a hundred times faster than current ink-jet printers, Jaffe estimates.
You might think that finer image resolution would also be attractive to a fastidious counterfeiter. Jaffe thinks not. “Resolution is not the problem,” she says. “You get your biggest gain [in visual quality] between 300 and 600 dots per inch, and after that it doesn’t matter.” A resolution of 600 dpi picks up the microprinting on genuine bills, and there’s no finer detail coming off the presses. At any rate, raising the number of dots per inch slows the printer’s speed.
Engineers today go instead for “bit depth,” which means varying the amount of ink in each dot. A printer with a bit depth of 8 has eight gradations between the lightest and darkest dots, and manufacturers now claim bit depths of 32. This permits a far more realistic matching of scanned colors, which must be imitated by overlapping dots from each of the three primary colors. The continuing improvements in bit depth might enhance the coloring of counterfeit notes.
If there’s no stopping the digital revolution, why shouldn’t policing go digital, too? Several manufacturers of color copiers have installed chips that recognize the world’s major currency notes and block attempts to copy them. Unfortunately, such a chip might raise costs. Another suggestion is to modify printers to add a unique, covert mark to every piece of paper, allowing counterfeits to be traced to particular machines. Knowing that, casual counterfeiters might be less tempted to experiment. This strategy, however, may also face opposition. Nevertheless, the Secret Service is looking into all these possibilities and more and meeting with manufacturers to find out what might be practical. “The technical issue,” Lynch says, “is really the linchpin.”
All epidemics run their course. A disease spreads explosively at first, but finally the rate of infection levels off. During the Civil War the currency mutated in self-defense, new antibodies kicked into action–the Secret Service–and a new equilibrium emerged, with counterfeiters at a disadvantage. Right now, the idea is to deter casual counterfeiting with enough technical barriers and currency changes to restore equilibrium. Yet the printing techniques used for both counterfeiting and genuine currency are mutating faster than ever.
“It’s a very interesting period,” Tom Ferguson says.
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The first coin authorized by the democratic republic of the United States of America carried images of neither politician nor deity. That coin, designed by Benjamin Franklin, conveyed an American mix of pragmatism and poetry. One side bore the image of a sundial–an image of the thrifty use of time–and the inscription MIND YOUR BUSINESS. The flip side displayed a chain of 13 links around the words WE ARE ONE. Franklin borrowed the image of the chain from the Iroquois, who used it to represent the federation of their five nations. The Native American motif will reappear in 2000, on a new dollar coin to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar. The new dollar will commemorate Sacagawea–the teenaged Shoshone wife of a French-Canadian guide for the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition. Sacagawea, traveling with her infant son, not only helped the team communicate with Native Americans on the journey west but probably eased the locals’ fears about the expedition’s aims.
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The Secret Service doesn’t follow the art market, but its agents have been keeping an eye on artist J. S. G. Boggs. The agency was founded in 1865 in large part to defend against counterfeiters, and Boggs’s artworks are finely detailed, one-sided ink drawings of currency. He signs them as works of art and trades them to merchants. Over the past decade, Boggs has traded his creations for more than $250,000. The Secret Service doesn’t like it, but Boggs has never been convicted of counterfeiting.
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TO DEMONSTRATE HOW EASY counterfeiting is these days, a Secret Service agent scans an image from a new $100 bill onto the screen of a laptop computer. She might have passed it like that, but being a bit of a perfectionist, she wants to change the serial number and simulate the watermark. That takes about five minutes using off-the-shelf imageprocessing software. From the enhanced image stored on the disk, she prints one note. Held up to the light, it looks as if it has the genuine watermark. Red and blue threads appear on the paper; you have to look closely to see they are ink, not fiber. It would have taken a few more minutes to imitate the security thread, but who looks for that?
Imitating the feel of a genuine bill is much harder than getting the look, which is why most bank tellers “spot” fakes not with their eyes but with their fingers. So choice of paper is very important. Of course, you could always go to Crane & Co. in Dalton, Massachusetts, and ask to buy some of the same paper the company supplies to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, but you wouldn’t get very far. Possessing this paper, or any that even resembles it, is a federal crime.
Without access to the real McCoy, sophisticated counterfeiters are forced to buy top-quality bond paper and then experiment with giving their freshly faked bills a worn look. Washing machines play a large part here: people literally launder their fake money inside the pockets of blue jeans. A bit of dirt helps, too. Clothes dryers give bills that crumpled, tumbled, and worn look.
One of the hardest visible features to fake is the color-shifting ink on the new fifties and hundreds, which alternates between green and black when you tilt the paper. Amateurs often try to give the ink a glittery look, which just might pass muster with distracted cashiers.
Your local office-supply store should have a cheap ink-jet printer with 600-dotper-square-inch resolution, a personal computer, a scanner, and some imaging software to capture the image of the bill you want to forge. Half an hour of practice in front-and-back printing ought to give you a sufficiently accurate registration. A paper cutter would come in handy, too. Total capital invested: probably $2,000 or $3,000. Risk assumed: Up to 15 years in a federal penitentiary.
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