20 ($) Ways To Foil Forgers
It still feels the same. It still smells the same. But as of today, America's $20 bill has a whole new look.Skip to next paragraph
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The new design aims to thwart the growing ranks of "casual counterfeiters" - everyone from gang members to suburban teenagers armed with ink-jet printers - and the desire to make money the easy way.
On the new bill, there's a bigger portrait of Andrew Jackson, with more craggy facial details - all the better to spot a less-detailed fake.
There's color-shifting ink that makes the lower-right "20" on the front side look black when viewed from one angle and green from another. There's even a security strip woven into the linen and cotton fiber.
These and other upgrades come as counterfeiting goes high-tech - and lowbrow.
Gone are the days when only skilled experts crafted counterfeit cash. At the turn of the century, for instance, Dutch-born sign-painter Emanuel "Jim the Penman" Ninger spent long hours in his New Jersey farmhouse hand-painting fake bills with camel's-hair brushes.
Today anyone with a little derring-do and a decent printer can turn a home or office into a money factory.
"This new technology on the right side of the law aims to thwart the advances on the wrong side," says agent John Tomlinson of the Secret Service, which is charged with busting fake-money makers.
The changes follow earlier redesigns of the $50 and $100 bills. But the new look of the 20 is perhaps more important: Besides the $1 note, 20s are the most-used bills. (There are $88 billion worth of 20s in the world today.) And they're the most-counterfeited. Thus, Mr. Jackson and his bill have gotten more than a superficial makeover.
* There's a watermark - a new feature that's a copy of Jackson's portrait embedded in the paper.
* Printed in tiny, get-out-your-magnifying-glass letters along the lower edge of the oval framing Jackson are the words "The United States of America." This microprinting is even smaller than on previous versions - and thus harder to reproduce.
* The polymer security strip - and especially its placement - foils a favorite forgery trick. Counterfeiters like to bleach out the numbers on a $10 or $20 bill and replace them with "50" or "100." But in the new 20s, the polymer strip is in a different location than in the larger bills, far left of the portrait. Also, when put under ultraviolet light, the strip in the 20 glows green. In the 50, it's yellow; in the 100, red.
Despite all the advances, counterfeiters still proliferate.
Mostly it's because people don't often check bills they're handed. That's why the new design includes easily identifiable elements - the polymer strip and the color-shifting ink.
These advances have paid off: The amount of counterfeit money in circulation has fallen from $108 million in 1995 to $72 million in 1997, according to Secret Service estimates. The bills that used to cost 3.4 cents to make, however, now cost 5.3 cents.
And the number of counterfeiters is growing. In 1995, 1,856 were arrested. In 1997, that number grew to 2,436. So far this year, it's been more than 3,300.
Chalk it up to a new breed of high-tech forgers. The Secret Service says 43 percent of today's funny money is made on ink-jet-type color printers.
Take the seven teenagers in a wealthy Indianapolis suburb arrested last year for making $10 and $20 bills on their printer. None of them had been in trouble with the law before. Or there's the West Virginia teen who put his own portrait in place of Ben Franklin's. His uncle was arrested using one of the bills at a McDonald's drive-through.
Today's technology enables such home-made currency to proliferate. The World Wide Web, for instance, makes for quick transfer of bill images. Although it's illegal to own printing plates engraved with dollar-bill images, it's legal to possess and transmit such images. They're often traded by currency enthusiasts.
Also, while forgers used to search endlessly for green-tinted paper, ink-jet printers can add the tint and even a watermark.
Wet ink still runs
Yet for all their advances, counterfeiters are always susceptible to being found out.
Back at the turn of the century, the meticulous Mr. Ninger was finally stopped when he tried to pass one of his bills at a saloon. Moisture on the bar's surface made the ink run.
Ink from printers will run if it gets wet, too. A moistened finger swiped across a bill will make telltale smudges. Americans using this technique - and looking for the color-shifting ink, the watermark, and the polymer strip - is what authorities hope will finally put an end to forgery.