Giving crooks a run for the money $100 bills redesigned to foil counterfeiters make debut today

March 25, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

For counterfeit foes, it's money from heaven.

Beginning today, the federal government will start circulating crisp new $100 bills that are so unusual, they look like botched counterfeits themselves. But with new presidential portraits, faint watermarks and inks that change color, U.S. Secret Service agents are hoping the new greenbacks will confound crooks for years to come.

"No note in the world is counterfeit-proof," says Richard A. Rohde, former chief of the counterfeit division for the Secret Service, who now heads the agency's Maryland field office. "But this note will be much more difficult to copy, and we will narrow the scope of the people with the expertise to do it."

In the first major redesign of the nation's currency in 68 years, the Treasury Department will start to distribute boxes of new $100 bills to banks around the country and the world this morning.

Eventually, other bills will follow: $50s, $20s, $10s, $5s and $1s. .. They will be shipped to banks at the rate of one new denomination every year or so, but the old notes will be as good as the new.

With the explosion of high-tech color copying machines and digital printers, counterfeit foes figured they had to do something to stop crooks from creating their own money supplies. It's taken counterfeit experts nearly 13 years to come up with the new design and incorporate it into the nation's currency.

"We're really excited about this," says Mr. Rohde, who worked with other federal officials to come up with the new design during his tenure with the Secret Service's counterfeit unit. "This note is going to be very effective combating counterfeiting around the world."

The new $100 bill that hits the streets today looks like no other. The most noticeable difference: a new portrait of Ben Franklin. He's bigger. He has a wry smile. And he has been moved to the left side of the bill.

The field behind the portrait consists of tiny, concentric lines. When crooks try to reproduce the bills on copying machines, the fields blur and become blotchy -- a sure sign of a counterfeit.

Mysterious watermark

By moving the portrait to the left, engravers made more room for a watermark. When the note is tilted, a small version of the portrait appears as a shadow in the background of the bill.

"That will never show up on a copier or a scanner," says Agent Rohde, chief of the Secret Service's counterfeit division from 1993 until his appointment as special agent in charge of Maryland in January.

Another feature: microprinting. In print barely visible to the naked eye, engravers have written the phrase "USA100" into the collar of the portrait and into the number "100" on the left side of the bill.

On the right side of the bill, engravers incorporated one of the fanciest new features: color-shifting ink. When viewed straight on, the number "100" appears to be green. When the bill is tilted, the number turns black.

Now, instead of relying on ultra-violet lighting systems and microscopes to ferret out phony notes, anyone can detect counterfeit money by tilting the bills and making sure the "100" turns color.

"We wanted enough features in this note so people on the street could determine if the bill is counterfeit," Agent Rohde says. "If it is counterfeit, our best line of defense is the person who receives the note."

Federal agents have been fighting counterfeiters ever since President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service in 1865, a time when more than one-third of the nation's currency was phony.

As U.S. currency grew in importance, counterfeiters around the world tried to copy it with varying degrees of success. The most copied bill in the world: the $100. In the United States, counterfeiters prefer to duplicate the $20, the most frequently exchanged note in America.

Where fakes come from

In recent years, countries such as Colombia, Canada and Lebanon have emerged as the biggest producers of counterfeit U.S. bills. Crooks typically sell the notes for 20 percent to 30 percent of their face value.

Last year, about $230 million in counterfeit bills was seized outside the United States, and close to $80 million was found within the country. Nearly $32 million in phony bills actually made its way into the hands of the public, according to the Secret Service.

For decades, successful counterfeiters needed some expertise to copy currency -- engravers, plates and special ink. Not any more. A state-of-the-art copying machine or a digital printer works just fine.

Alarmed by the new technology and the potential to damage the credibility of the world's most popular currency -- about $140 billion is circulating within the United States, and another $250 billion is circulating outside the country -- the U.S. government fought back.

Federal agents acknowledge that the redesigned bills will create new challenges.

"Somebody will try to counterfeit this," Agent Rohde says. "But I don't think they'll do a very good job."

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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