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Counterfeit money is imitation currency produced without the legal sanction of the state or government. Producing or using counterfeit money is a form of fraud or forgery. Counterfeiting is almost as old as money itself. Plated copies (known as Fourrées) have been found of Lydian coins which are thought to be among the first western coins. Before the introduction of paper money, the most prevalent method of counterfeiting involved mixing base metals with pure gold or silver. A form of counterfeiting is the production of documents by legitimate printers in response to fraudulent instructions. During World War II, the Nazis forged British pounds and American dollars. Today some of the finest counterfeit banknotes are called Superdollars because of their high quality and likeness to the real US dollar. There has been significant counterfeiting of Euro banknotes and coins since the launch of the currency in 2002, but considerably less than for the US dollar.
Some of the ill-effects that counterfeit money has on society include a reduction in the value of real money; and increase in prices (inflation) due to more money getting circulated in the economy - an unauthorized artificial increase in the money supply; a decrease in the acceptability of paper money; and losses, when traders are not reimbursed for counterfeit money detected by banks, even if it is confiscated.
Traditionally, anti-counterfeiting measures involved including fine detail with raised intaglio printing on bills which allows non-experts to easily spot forgeries. On coins, milled or reeded (marked with parallel grooves) edges are used to show that none of the valuable metal has been scraped off.
Counterfeiting is as old as money itself, and is sufficiently prevalent throughout history that it has been called "the world's second oldest profession." Coinage of money began in the Greek city of Lydia around 600 B.C. Before the introduction of paper money, the most prevalent method of counterfeiting involved mixing base metals with pure gold or silver. A common practice was to "shave" the edges of a coin. This is known as "clipping." Precious metals collected in this way could be used to produce counterfeit coinage. A fourrée is an ancient type of counterfeit coin, in which a base metal core has been plated with a precious metal to resemble its solid metal counterpart.
When paper money was introduced in China in the 13th century, wood from mulberry trees was used to make the money. To control access to the paper, guards were stationed around mulberry forests, while counterfeiters were punished by death.
In the 13th century Mastro Adamo was mentioned by Dante Alighieri as a counterfeiter of the Florentine fiorino, punished with death by hanging. The English couple Thomas and Anne Rogers were convicted on 15 October 1690 for "Clipping 40 pieces of Silver." Thomas Rogers was hanged, drawn and quartered while Anne Rogers was burnt alive. Evidence supplied by an informant led to the arrest of the last of the English Coiners "King" David Hartley, who was executed by hanging in 1770. The extreme forms of punishment were meted out for acts of treason against state or Crown, rather than simple crime.
Similarly, in America, Colonial paper currency printed by Benjamin Franklin and others often bore the phrase "to counterfeit is death." The theory behind such harsh punishments was that one who had the skills to counterfeit currency was considered a threat to the safety of the State, and had to be eliminated. Another explanation is the fact that issuing money that people could trust was both an economic imperative, as well as a (where applicable) Royal prerogative; therefore counterfeiting was a crime against the state or ruler itself, rather than against the person who received the fake money. Far more fortunate was an earlier practitioner of the same art, active in the time of the Emperor Justinian. Rather than executing Alexander the Barber, the Emperor chose to employ his talents in the government's own service.
Nations have used counterfeiting as a means of warfare. The idea is to overflow the enemy's economy with fake bank notes, so that the real value of the money plummets. Great Britain did this during the American Revolutionary War to reduce the value of the Continental Dollar. The counterfeiters for the British were known as "shovers," presumably for the ability to "shove" the fake currency into circulation. Two of the most well-known shovers for the British during the Revolutionary War were David Farnsworth and John Blair. They were caught with 10,000 dollars in counterfeits when arrested. George Washington took a personal interest in their case and even called for them to be tortured to discover further information. They were eventually hanged for their crimes.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate States dollar was heavily counterfeited by private interests on the Union side, often without the sanction of the Union government in Washington. The Confederacy's access to modern printing technology was limited while many Northern-made imitations were printed on high quality banknote paper procured through extralegal means. As a result, counterfeit Southern notes were often equal or even superior in quality compared to genuine Confederate money.
A form of counterfeiting is the production of documents by legitimate printers in response to fraudulent instructions. An example of this is the Portuguese Bank Note Crisis of 1925, when the British banknote printers Waterlow and Sons produced Banco de Portugal notes equivalent in value to 0.88% of the Portuguese nominal Gross Domestic Product, with identical serial numbers to existing banknotes, in response to a fraud perpetrated by Alves dos Reis. Similarly, in 1929 the issue of postage stamps celebrating the Millennium of Iceland's parliament, the Althing, was compromised by the insertion of "1" on the print order, before the authorised value of stamps to be produced (see Postage stamps and postal history of Iceland.)
In 1926 a high-profile counterfeit scandal came to light in Hungary, when several people were arrested in the Netherlands while attempting to procure 10 million francs' worth of fake French 1000-franc bills which had been produced in Hungary; after 3 years, the state-sponsored industrial scale counterfeit operation had finally collapsed. The League of Nations' investigation found Hungary's motives were to avenge its post-WWI territorial losses (blamed on Georges Clemenceau) and to use profits from the counterfeiting business to boost a militarist, border-revisionist ideology. Germany and Austria had an active role in the conspiracy, which required special machinery. The quality of fake bills was still substandard however, owing to France's use of exotic raw paper material imported from its colonies.
During World War II, the Nazis attempted to implement a similar plan (Operation Bernhard) against the Allies. The Nazis took Jewish artists in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and forced them to forge British pounds and American dollars. The quality of the counterfeiting was very good, and it was almost impossible to distinguish between the real and fake bills. Unable to enact planned aerial drops of the counterfeits over Britain, most notes were disposed of and not recovered until the 1950s.
Today some of the finest counterfeit banknotes are called Superdollars because of their high quality, and likeness to the real US dollar. The sources of such supernotes are disputed, with North Korea being vocally accused by US authorities. The amount of counterfeit United States currency is estimated to be less than $3 per $10,000, with less than $3 per $100,000 being difficult to detect.
There has been a rapid growth in the counterfeiting of euro banknotes and coins since the launch of the currency in 2002. In 2003, 551,287 fake euro notes and 26,191 bogus euro coins were removed from EU circulation. In 2004, French police seized fake 10 euro and 20 euro notes worth a total of around €1.8 million from two laboratories and estimated that 145,000 notes had already entered circulation.
In the early years of the 21st century, the United States Secret Service has noted a substantial reduction in the quantity of forged U.S. currency, as counterfeiters turn their attention towards the Euro.
A batch of counterfeit A$50 and A$100 notes were released into the Australian city of Melbourne in July 2013. As of July 12, 2013, 40 reports had been made between the northern suburbs of Heidelberg and Epping. Police spokespersons explained to the public in media reports that the currency notes were printed on paper and could be easily detected by scrunching up the note or tearing it. Additionally, the clear window within the notes was also an easy way to identify fake versions, as the "window appears to have been cut out with two clear plastic pieces stuck together with stars placed in the middle to replicate the Southern Cross." Police also revealed that fake notes had been seized in June 2013 in Melbourne's eastern and western suburbs. According to the Australian RBA figures, during 2014-15, the number of counterfeit $50 currency detected in circulation has more than doubled from the previous year, and more than 33,000 fake notes were removed from circulation. The officials believe this likely a fraction of the amount of fake currencies currently flooding through in Victoria and NSW states. On 31 May 2016, the ACT police have warned people to keep an eye out for fake $50 notes, which is circulating throughout Canberra in recent months. The officers have been called out to more than 35 businesses over the past two months in connection to counterfeit $50 notes.
Effects on society
- Companies are not reimbursed for counterfeits. This forces them to increase prices of commodities. As such, there is a reduction in the value of real money.
- Increase in prices (inflation) due to more money getting circulated in the economy - an unauthorized artificial increase in the money supply.
- Decrease in the acceptability (satisfactoriness) of money - payees may demand electronic transfers of real money or payment in another currency (or even payment in a precious metal such as gold).
At the same time, in countries where paper money is a small fraction of the total money in circulation, the macroeconomic effects of counterfeiting of currency may not be significant. The microeconomic effects, such as confidence in currency, however, may be large.
Traditionally, anti-counterfeiting measures involved including fine detail with raised intaglio printing on bills which would allow non-experts to easily spot forgeries. On coins, milled or reeded (marked with parallel grooves) edges are used to show that none of the valuable metal has been scraped off. This detects the shaving or clipping (paring off) of the rim of the coin. However, it does not detect sweating, or shaking coins in a bag and collecting the resulting dust. Since this technique removes a smaller amount, it is primarily used on the most valuable coins, such as gold. In early paper money in Colonial North America, one creative means of deterring counterfeiters was to print the impression of a leaf in the bill. Since the patterns found in a leaf were unique and complex, they were nearly impossible to reproduce.
In the late twentieth century advances in computer and photocopy technology made it possible for people without sophisticated training to copy currency easily. In response, national engraving bureaus began to include new more sophisticated anti-counterfeiting systems such as holograms, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks whose colors changed depending on the angle of the light, and the use of design features such as the "EURion constellation" which disables modern photocopiers. Software programs such as Adobe Photoshop have been modified by their manufacturers to obstruct manipulation of scanned images of banknotes. There also exist patches to counteract these measures.
Recently, there has been a discovery of new tests that could be used on U.S. Federal Reserve Notes to ensure that the bills are authentic. These tests are done using intrinsic fluorescence lifetime. This allows for detection of counterfeit money because of the significance in difference of fluorescence lifetime when compared to authentic money.
For U.S. currency, anti-counterfeiting milestones are as follows:
- 1996 $100 bill gets a new design with a larger portrait
- 1997 $50 bill gets a new design with a larger portrait
- 1998 $20 bill gets a new design with a larger portrait
- 2000 $10 bill and $5 bill get a new design with a larger portrait
- 2003 $20 bill gets a new design with no oval around Andrew Jackson's portrait and more colors
- 2004 $50 bill gets a new design with no oval around Ulysses S. Grant's portrait and more colors
- 2006 $10 bill gets a new design with no oval around Alexander Hamilton's portrait and more colors
- 2008 $5 bill gets a new design with no oval around Abraham Lincoln's portrait and more colors
- 2010 $100 bill gets a new design with no oval around Benjamin Franklin's portrait and more colors
The redesigned $100 bill was unveiled on April 21, 2010, and the Federal Reserve Board was to begin issuing the new bill on February 10, 2011, but the release was delayed until October 2013.
The Treasury had made no plans to redesign the $5 bill using colors, but recently reversed its decision, after learning some counterfeiters were bleaching the ink off the bills and printing them as $100 bills. The new $10 bill (the design of which was revealed in late 2005) entered circulation on March 2, 2006. The $1 bill and $2 bill are seen by most counterfeiters as having too low a value to counterfeit, and so they have not been redesigned as frequently as higher denominations.
In the 1980s counterfeiting in the Republic of Ireland twice resulted in sudden changes in official documents: in November 1984 the £1 postage stamp, also used on savings cards for paying television licences and telephone bills, was invalidated and replaced by another design at a few days' notice, because of widespread counterfeiting. Later, the £20 Central Bank of Ireland Series B banknote was rapidly replaced because of what the Finance Minister described as "the involuntary privatisation of banknote printing".
In the 1990s, the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong was placed on the banknotes of the People's Republic of China to combat counterfeiting, as he was recognised better than the generic designs on the renminbi notes.
In 1988 the Reserve Bank of Australia released the world's first long lasting and counterfeit-resistant polymer (plastic) banknotes with a special Bicentennial $10 note issue. After problems with this bill were discovered and addressed, in 1992 a problem-free $5 note was issued. In 1996 Australia became the first country to have a full series of circulating polymer banknotes. On 3 May 1999 the New Zealand Reserve Bank started circulating polymer banknotes printed by Note Printing Australia Limited. The technology developed is now used in 26 countries. Note Printing Australia is currently printing polymer notes for 18 countries.
Penalties by country for creating counterfeit money
- Canada: s. 450 of the Criminal Code makes counterfeiting money an indictable offence, with a maximum term of 14 years' imprisonment.
- Poland: Polish penalty code article 310 specifies 5 to 25 years of imprisonment.
- United States: fraudulent creation or alteration of United States currency is an offense punishable by fine, imprisonment for a fixed term of no more than twenty years, or both.
List of notable counterfeiters
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- Peter Alston, was the late 18th Century and early 19th Century counterfeiter and river pirate, who is believed to be Little Harpe's associate and partner in the murder of notorious outlaw leader Samuel Mason in 1803
- Philip Alston, was an 18th-century counterfeiter both before and after the American Revolution in Virginia and the Carolinas before the war, and later in Kentucky and Illinois afterwards.
- Anatasios Arnaouti, a British counterfeiter of more than £2.5 million in fake money, sentenced in 2005.
- Frank Bourassa, a Canadian counterfeiter, that set up a secret money printing operation capable of printing $250 million USD in counterfeit bills. He spent a month and a half in a Canadian jail in 2014, in agreement to not be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution.
- Edward Bonney, an alleged counterfeiter in northern Indiana, who escaped to Nauvoo, Illinois, was a bounty hunter and amateur detective, posed as a counterfeiter, to apprehend the murderers of Colonel George Davenport and infiltrate the Midwestern Banditti of the Prairie.
- Abel Buell, American colonialist and republican who went from altering five-pound note engraving plates to publishing the first map of the new United States created by an American.
- Mary Butterworth, a counterfeiter in colonial America.
- William Chaloner, a British counterfeiter convicted by Sir Isaac Newton and hanged on 16 March 1699.
- Mike DeBardeleben, was sent to prison for counterfeiting the $20 bill
- Alves dos Reis, who by the end of 1925 had managed to introduce escudo banknotes worth £1,007,963 at 1925 exchange rates into the Portuguese economy, which was equivalent to 0.88% of Portugal’s nominal GDP at the time.
- John Duff, was a counterfeiter, hunter, and soldier, who served in George Rogers Clark's campaign, to capture the Illinois country, for the Patriot American side, during the Revolutionary War.
- Eric "Klipping" V, the king of Denmark (1259–1286). The king’s nickname refers to "clipping" of the coin.
- David Farnsworth, was a British loyalist counterfeiter and spy, in the American Revolutionary War. He was hanged for his crimes, after George Washington had taken a personalised interest in his case.
- "King" David Hartley, was the leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners of rural 18th century England. Producing fake gold coins, he was eventually captured and hanged at Tyburn near York on April 28, 1770 and buried in the village of Heptonstall, W Yorks. His brother, Isaac, escaped the authorities and lived until 1815.
- Stephen Jory, Great Britain's most renowned counterfeiter started his career by selling cheap perfume in designer bottles. He later established his own illegal printing operation to produce and distribute an estimated five billion pounds in counterfeit currency throughout the United Kingdom.
- Edward Mueller, documented in Mister 880, he was possibly the longest uncaught counterfeiter in history. For ten or more years he eluded government authorities while he printed and spent fake $1 bills in his New York neighborhood.
- Catherine Murphy, convicted of coining in 1789 and was the last woman to suffer execution by burning in England.
- John A. Murrell, a near-legendary bandit operating in the United States along the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. Convicted for his crimes in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, Murrell was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, modeled after the Auburn penal system, from 1834 to 1844.
- King Philip the Fair of France (1268–1314), caused riots and was known as "the counterfeiter king" for emitting coinage that was debased compared to the standards that had been prevalent during the half century previous to his reign.
- Sturdivant Gang, a multi-generational group of American counterfeiters whose criminal activities took place over a 50-year period from Colonial Connecticut to the Illinois frontier.
- Albert Talton, was sent to prison for counterfeiting the United States one hundred-dollar bill and the United States twenty-dollar bill. Produced over 7 million dollars in counterfeit US currency using a standard inkjet printer, and was convicted and sent to prison in May 2009.
- Samuel C. Upham, the first known counterfeiter of Confederate money during the American Civil War. His activities began or became known in early July 1862.
- Wesley Weber, imprisoned in 2001 for counterfeiting the Canadian hundred-dollar bill.
- Arthur Williams, imprisoned in 2007 for counterfeiting the United States one hundred-dollar bill.
Money art is a subject related to counterfeiting—it is art that incorporates currency designs or themes. Some of these works of art are similar enough to actual bills that their legality is in question. While a counterfeit is made with deceptive intent, money art is not; however, the law may or may not differentiate between the two. JSG Boggs is an American artist best known for his hand-drawn, one-sided copies of US banknotes, which he sells for the face value of the note.
The street artist Banksy is known for making 10 pound notes that feature Princess Diana's portrait in place of the Queen, while "Bank of England" is replaced by "Banksy of England". The artist's original intent was to throw them off a building, but after some of the notes were dropped at a festival he discovered that they could pass for legal tender and changed his mind. As of 2012, Banksy is still in possession of all one hundred million pounds' worth of the currency.
In 2006, American artist Jack Daws hired metalsmiths to make a mold of a 1970 U.S. penny and cast it in 18-karat gold. He then hired another metalsmith to copper-plate it, after which it looked like an ordinary penny. On March 28, 2007, Daws intentionally put the "penny" in circulation at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The sculpture was discovered in Brooklyn two-and-a-half years later by Jessica Reed, a graphic designer and coin collector, who noticed it while paying for groceries at a local store. Reed eventually communicated with Daws's Seattle art dealer, the Greg Kucera Gallery, and Daws confirmed that she had discovered the Counterfeit Penny sculpture.
- Coin counterfeiting
- Copyright infringement
- Counterfeit banknote detection pen
- Currency detector
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- International Convention for the Suppression of Counterfeiting Currency
- Money laundering
- Organized crime
- Russian Mafia
- Triad (underground societies)
- United States Secret Service
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- 18 U.S.C. § 471
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