New $5 bill aims to thwart counterfeiters

Redesign seeks to stop criminals who have been bleaching old $5 bills and printing images of $100 bills over them.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Today, $5 barely buys a fast-food meal, so it seems odd that the United States Treasury is now unveiling a new version of this bill to foil counterfeiters.

The mystery deepens, given that this relatively small denomination received a makeover seven years ago, while the most counterfeited bill in the world, the US$100, hasn't had a face-lift in over a decade. It's enough to puzzle Ben Franklin himself.

It turns out, though, many of those counterfeit $100s were actually bleached $5s, reprinte d to look like their more lucrative relative. Apparently, the $5 and $100 bill shared the same security marks, which made a counterfeiter's job easier.

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The new $5 bill features two watermarks: one to the right of President Lincoln's portrait and a column of three easily visible numeral 5s to the left of the portrait. "This way, the new security features are in distinctly different locations from those on the $100," says Darrin Blackford, a spokesman for the US Secret Service.

The new bill marks the first major redesign of any note since 2003, when the $20 bill and others got a new look, using new colors and eliminating the oval that surrounded the presidential portrait. (The new $50 was unveiled in 2005, and a new $10 bill debuted in 2006. But the $100 was not changed.)

The redesign of the $5 bill also comes at a good time: In the last few years, counterfeiting has been on a steady rise. The amount of counterfeit currency accepted by consumers and stores in the US rose from $36.6 million in 2003 to $62 million last year. (Still, this is only 1/100 of a percent of all US currency in circulation, Mr. Blackford says.)

He also suggests that the increase shows that the 2003 design changes are working. The new watermarks and colors have made it easier to spot fakes, says Blackford, adding that there is no way to determine how much fake money is in circulation, only how much of it is seized or turned in.

The war against counterfeiting, like the war on terror, is not a war in the traditional sense, something that can be completely won, counterfeiting experts say. Instead, it's a battle in which the government works to use new technology and techniques to foil counterfeiters – at least for a little while.

But new technology has also become the tool of counterfeiters. The escalating popularity and affordability of home computers, scanners, and color printers makes the Secret Service's job more difficult, Blackford says. In the past, criminals used large offset printers to make large amounts of fake bills at a time. Today, individuals can print counterfeit bills from the comfort of their home on an as-needed basis. A decade ago, these "digital notes" represented less than 10 percent of counterfeit currency, compared with 54 percent today, Blackford says. "It's a problem, and it's something we're taking very seriously."

Of all the counterfeit that the Secret Service detects, almost half (46 percent) is seized before it goes into circulation, Blackford says. Overall, only a tiny fraction of the $770 billion of US currency in circulation is fake, he says.

Despite the relatively small amount of counterfeit money, "redesigns are necessary to preserve trust and confidence in American currency," says Stephen Mihm, a history professor at the University of Georgia and the author of "A Nation of Counterfeiters." Each redesign raises the stakes, putting some counterfeiters out of business, he says.

The five's makeover will not be as dramatic, though, as next year's $100. That note will features 650,000 lenses, creating the illusion that the images on the bill are moving as you move the bill from side to side or up and down. This easy-to-spot feature should go a long way toward halting counterfeit money from passing through more hands, experts say. But redesigns only work if people know what the new, authentic currency is supposed to look like.

"Public education is the most important way to stop counterfeits," says Blackford.

In that vein, the new $5 bill's "Wi-5" unveiling will occur online through a webcast of officials explaining the new bill at 9 a.m. EDT on Sept. 20. An interactive press conference will follow the webcast, with reporters typing in questions and officials responding live on camera. This webcast as well as the first images of the $5 bill are available at www.moneyfactory.gov/newmoney. Video interviews with members of the public talking about the new bill and finding the new security features will also appear on the site this week. The hope is the technique will attract a broader audience, Blackford says.

To learn to spot a fake, you can also go to www.secretservice.gov/know_your_money.shtml. Anyone who thinks they've received a counterfeit note, Blackford says, should call their local police or Secret Service field office.

Among the latest anticounterfeiting efforts is the development of a chemical, spectroscopic signature, Professor Mihm says. It would help identify if a bill was created in specific conditions and with a certain kind of paper, making it nearly impossible to replicate. A machine would then be able to look for that kind of money "fingerprint," he says, and detect fakes easily, quickly, and definitively.

From a historical perspective, counterfeiting is a minor issue today. Before the Civil War, 10 to 15 percent of money in circulation was fake, Mihm says. This high percentage stems from the fact that the government only started to print an official US currency in order to pay for the Civil War. Before then, approximately 10,000 currencies were used in the US, Mihm says. "People had a hard enough time remembering what the different currencies were supposed to look like, let alone recognizing counterfeits," he says.

In 1865, the US Secret Service was created within the Treasury Department to suppress counterfeiting. But it took until the early 1900s before the service could bring the percentage of counterfeits down to today's level. The amount of counterfeit currency has also gone up and down depending on economic and political circumstances, Mihm says. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, counterfeiting increased dramatically as the threat of imprisonment was less worrisome than paying for the basic requirements of life.

The 1990s also saw an increase in counterfeits as efforts to imitate US currency became international. In fact, Americans should be more worried if no one wanted to counterfeit their money, Mihm says.

"Whenever a currency is counterfeited it's a sign of desirability. Should the dollar cease to be the currency of choice, then you would see a drop in counterfeiting," Mihm says.

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