In an age when electronic banking security breaches make headlines on a regular basis, is any form of currency still safe? Surprisingly, paper currency, yep, good old folding money, remains reliably secure. Through cutting-edge technology, the U.S. Treasury keeps our paper money several steps ahead of even the most well-equipped and creative counterfeiters.
It does take constant evaluation and advances to block increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting techniques using digital computers, copiers, printers and scanners. High-tech measures, such as a plastic security thread and microprinting, were added to bills beginning in the 1990s. As older notes wear out, they are replaced with newer ones. However, the United States has never recalled any currency, and old notes are still considered legal tender.
Ever wonder what people are looking for when they hold a bill up to the light for an inspection to see if it’s genuine? Some of the features are pretty high tech.
Paper: One of the most distinctive and difficult to reproduce qualities of paper money is the very paper it’s printed on. There’s no tree pulp in U.S. currency; instead, the rag is made from a mix of cotton and linen fibers. That’s one of the reasons the wad of dollar bills you left in your pocket goes through the laundry so well! The paper includes tiny but distinctive red and blue fibers and is manufactured with a watermark of the same historical figure as the denomination will be printed.
Ink: The distinctive mossy green ink used on money in unique in and of itself. In addition, the ink used to print the number on the lower right corner of $10, $20 and $50 bills is a special color-shifting ink; it looks like the usual green when viewed straight on, but it appears black when you look at it from an angle.
Fine-line printing: The intricate, tiny patterns that make up the background of the portraits and artwork on U.S. currency are almost impossible to reproduce with scanners or other printing methods.
Microprinting: The design of each denomination includes an area featuring microprinting, or tiny words so small they can’t be read without a magnifier and that blur when copied. You can find microprinting in various portrait borders or inside the numbers in the lower left corner of the bills.
Portrait: You may notice that the iconic historical portrait on each type of bill is larger today than it used to be, and is no longer centered on the bill. This design change offers more space for a watermark, and it helps reduce wear on the portrait from folding—important because the portraits have proven to be the most identifiable feature of the various bills for many people.
Security strip: Embedded in all but $1 and $2 bills, is a polymer strip microprinted with “USA,” and the denomination of the bill; for the $50 and $20 bills—an American flag. You can see this strip if you hold the note up to a bright light; if you examine the bill under an ultraviolet light, the thread glows a distinct color for each denomination.
Counterfeiting isn’t a problem you should normally encounter in day-to-day transactions, but if you’re a merchant or if you find yourself dealing with very large bills, it couldn’t hurt to become aware of a few basic measures to protecting yourself.
- Feel the bill. You’ve almost assuredly handled enough money over your lifetime to tell when a note doesn’t feel like the real thing.
- Examine the bill in good lighting. Look for the color-shift ink, security strip and watermark—all difficult or impossible to duplicate. Examine the quality of the printing, looking for smudges, blurs and broken borders. Look for the colored fibers in the paper.
- Check a stack of bills for problems, such as duplicate serial numbers or numbers that don’t match from the front to the back of the bill.
- Be especially suspicious of older bills. For example, pre-1996 designs and bills of larger denominations. Nearly all the pre-1996 money that is actually legitimate has been taken out of circulation and destroyed already.
- Call the police if you suspect you might have received a counterfeit note.