Have you lost a ton of money on the stock market this week? Maybe it’s time to invest in counterfeit currency. (That’s not actual investment advice.)
With all the talk of bitcoin kidnapping and hackers stealing our credit card information, it’s hard to believe that good old-fashioned counterfeiting is still a problem. And it’s a BIG problem—in fact, this Big Crunch reporter was recently the victim of currency trickery.
I went to a laundry to pick up a bag of clothes and handed the cashier a crisp $10 bill—maybe a little too crisp. She took one look at it and handed it back saying, “It’s fake.”
I was in no mood for this and argued for a little while until it was clear she wasn’t going to take it. Later, comparing it to other bills, I was blown away that the woman could identify the fraud with just a glance. Take a look. Can you tell which is fake? (See below for the answer.)
This got me thinking. How common is it these days to get counterfeit currency? Does it pass in and out of our wallets unnoticed—I wouldn’t have noticed if the woman at laundry hadn’t pointed it out. And why a 10? I mean, if you’re going to the bother of printing fake currency, at least make it worth your while with a $20 or $100.
It turns out there’s upwards of $147 million in fake U.S. currency circulating globally these days, according the most recent data available from the U.S. Secret Service. About 60 percent of that is in the U.S. The $20 bill is the most common counterfeit denomination in the states, while the $100 bill is the most common overseas.
Around 1 in 10,000 bills is fake
It’s tough to get estimates on how many fake bills there are in different denominations. The most recent figures are from a 2006 report, which found that only 6 percent of counterfeits seized by the Secret Service in the U.S. were 10s, while more than 40 percent were 20s. That was the year before the new 10 went into circulation, which has more security features than the previous edition. At the same time, that was two years after the new 20 came out and Jackson’s share of counterfeits actually increased in that time, from 36 percent in 2003.
That $147 million is a fraction of a percent of the approximately $1.2 trillion of genuine U.S. currency floating around out there, but it’s still enough to devote resources to crack down on the fakery: The Secret Service arrested 2,191 people in fiscal 2014 on counterfeit currency charges, according to the agency’s annual report. They also shut down 188 counterfeit manufacturing plants worldwide.
“There’s been a shift…to a larger number of unskilled opportunistic counterfeiters.”
The digital revolution has changed how counterfeiters operate, too. The proliferation of cheap printing technology has largely replaced the traditional “off-set” printing techniques with a low-cost, populist alternative.
“Within the last two decades, there has been a shift from a smaller number of highly skilled domestic counterfeiters … to a larger number of unskilled opportunistic counterfeiters,” a Secret Service document said.
Of the counterfeit currency produced in the U.S. in 2014, around 61 percent was made using digital printing, and 39 percent was made with the traditional offset method. That 61 percent is up from around 1 percent in the mid-1990s, according to some reports. Keep in mind though that that’s just on the domestic side. Higher-quality offset printing still flourishes internationally, where there’s less of a chance of being caught and forgers can even be supported by local governments.
The ease of digital counterfeiting has led some software manufacturers to include currency-detection features that prevent users from opening images of U.S. bills.
Adobe Photoshop doesn’t allow you to edit images of U.S. currency, specifically to prevent counterfeiting. But Adobe’s Illustrator software has no such restriction. A spokesperson for Adobe pointed to a online statement regarding Photoshop’s counterfeit deterrence system but declined to elaborate on other products’ features.
The bill on the bottom is the forgery.