Ben Gets Makeover to Fight Counterfeits

BEN FRANKLIN just got a facelift. A makeover for Ulysses S. Grant is next. Then it may be Andrew Jackson's turn; after all these years, you'd think Old Hickory would have learned how to comb his hair.

After leaving basic designs unchanged for most of this century, the US government has begun redesigning its currency. The renovation project is intended to give US bills a cleaner, 21st century look - and foil fast-advancing counterfeit techniques.

The rise of color copiers and laser computer printers is making the printing of bogus currency easier than ever before. Redesigned bills will feature watermarks, special inks, and tiny ''microprinting'' intended to prevent criminal reproduction.

''Today we have a secure currency, but it is absolutely imperative that we stay ahead of the rush of technology,'' said Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin at this week's unveiling of the redesigned $100 bill.

The Treasury started with the Ben Franklin-bearing $100 bill because, among other things, it's the most widely circulated bill in the world. About two-thirds of the $100 bills in existence are outside the United States, according to Federal Reserve Board estimates.

Engravers are already at work redesigning Grant for a new $50 bill. Andrew Jackson and the $20 bill will follow (his wild white hair will likely remain), and plans call for the $10, $5, and $2 bills to eventually receive similar treatment.

The new $100 does indeed look dramatic. Franklin's portrait is much larger and shifted to the left. The border is simpler. The ink on the number ''100'' in the lower right corner changes from green to black when viewed at an angle.

The bill is still easily recognizable as US currency. It's still green, among other things, and the typeface still seems, somehow, very 19th century.

''We went through a series of much more contemporary designs,'' admits Jack Ruther, the Treasury bill designer responsible for the $100.

What does this mean? Did he draw Ben wearing a ''No Fears'' T-shirt and a personal stereo?

Mr. Ruther declines to be more specific, but says he would have preferred to change the bill even more. He admits to a fondness for British and Canadian currency, which have elaborate designs mixing wildlife with leader likenesses, all in brilliant color.

''Hopefully, next time around we can get into some color,'' says Ruther. Considering that the last time the currency was redesigned was the late 1920s, ''I'll probably be retired'' before US bills add red, yellow, and blue to their distinctive green, the currency designer says.

IN fact, Ben Franklin might have remained as he was for decades if not for the counterfeit threat. About $25 million in bogus US money entered circulation last year, according to government estimates. That's a big increase from 1985, when an estimated $7 million in counterfeits were passed.

The bulk of this money was done by professional counterfeiters the old-fashioned way - on offset presses. But last year a National Research Council (NRC) report concluded that new color copiers and personal-computer technology were a fast-growing risk. Such technology allows even a petty crook the means to produce a bill passable in a dark restaurant.

Incidents of this so-called ''casual counterfeiting'' have been doubling every year since 1989, according to the NRC. ''Law enforcement agencies could be overwhelmed by these counterfeits, since traceability to the source would be very difficult,'' concluded the report.

Thus the new anticounterfeit measures. The $100 bill's new ''microprinting'' features (the words ''United States of America'' have been inserted into Franklin's lapel, for instance) turn blurry when photocopied. The color-shifting ink and watermark would resist duplication by all but criminals with the resources of a small nation.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing the new $100 bills two weeks ago. They intend to print a half-billion of them - enough to satisfy both commercial needs and an expected surge in requests from consumers curious about the new features.

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