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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.