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Counterfeiting Is As Old As Money

Updated on July 1, 2011
An 18th century Pennsylvania bill emphasizes the death sentence for counterfeiting
An 18th century Pennsylvania bill emphasizes the death sentence for counterfeiting

Punishable By Death

Did you know that in the United States and England, counterfeiting was once a crime punishable by death? In fact, paper currency printed by Benjamin Franklin, often had the phrase "to counterfeit is death." printed on them. It is one of the oldest crimes in history dating back to the minting of the first coins.

The definition of counterfeit money is “Currency that is produced without the legal sanction of the state or government to resemble some official form of currency closely enough that it may be confused for genuine currency.” It is also considered fraud.

Counterfeiting is as old as money itself. Before paper money, coins were counterfeited by mixing base metals with pure gold or silver and pouring the melted mixture into molds or dies. In contrast, modern coins are stamped out using special machines.

A common practice was shaving the rare metals from the edges of a coin, a process known as "clipping." These precious metal shavings were used to create counterfeits in molds or dies which often left die marks, like cracks or pimples. Another method employed was plating a counterfeit coin with a thin layer of gold or silver.

Perpetrators of such deeds were dealt with very harshly. There was an English couple, Thomas and Anne Rogers, who were convicted in 1690 for "Clipping 40 pieces of Silver." Thomas was hanged, drawn and quartered while his wife was burnt alive.

The security strip glows under a black light illustrating a security measure against counterfeiting
The security strip glows under a black light illustrating a security measure against counterfeiting

Counterfeit Coins

Today, if the value of a coin is above five cents, it should have corrugated edges, a measure designed to eliminate counterfeiting of coins. This is referred to as “reeding”. On genuine coins it is even and distinct. A counterfeit coin's may be uneven, crooked, or even missing.

Counterfeit coins today are usually intended to resemble rare coins which are valuable to collectors. The usual practice involves altering coins to increase their value by removal, addition, or changing a coin's date or mint marks.

However, the most serious damage is done by counterfeiting paper currency because of its’ intrinsic higher value. During the 19th century around the time of the Civil War, and banks issued their own currency, it was estimated 1/3 of all currency was counterfeit.

A State Of Confusion

A state of confusion existed because about 1,600 state banks designed and printed their own notes. All had a different design, making it extremely hard to tell the difference between counterfeits amongst approximately 7,000 varieties of genuine notes.

The government decided to put a halt to the illegal practice. In 1863 a single national currency was adopted. However, it didn’t take crooks long to counterfeit it also. Therefore, it became necessary for the government to enact counter measures. So, in 1865, the United States Secret Service was established for that express purpose.

Nations have also used counterfeiting as a means of warfare by flooding an enemy's economy with fake notes, resulting in a rapid devaluation of their currency. This strategy was employed by the United States during the Civil War with Confederate currency . Surprisingly, the fake currency produced was vastly superior in quality to the real thing.

So, how serious is this crime? It results in the reduction of currency value and inflation. People or companies receiving such bogus bills are not reimbursed. This causes the necessity of having to raise the price of their goods. Sometimes payees may demand electronic transfers of genuine money or in another country’s currency, making it also a global problem.

In early paper money of Colonial times, one way of frustrating counterfeiters was to print the impression of a leaf in the bill. Patterns in a leaf were complex and almost impossible to duplicate.

However, in the late 1900’s advances in the computer and photocopying industry made it possible for people to copy currency easily. Therefore, national engraving bureaus included more sophisticated deterrents such as holograms, multi-colored bills, embedded strips, micro-printing and inks that changed color depending on the angle it is viewed from. In addition today’s photocopiers and photo software programs have been modified to prevent scanning images of banknotes.

Anti-counterfeiting measures have involved including fine detail with raised “intaglio” printing on bills a printing techniques in which an image is incised into a surface, which aids in easily identifying a forgery. As an individual, you can play an important role in eliminating counterfeits.

Compare a suspected counterfeit note with a real one of the same denomination. Pay close attention to quality of printing and paper characteristics. The genuine note will have a portrait appearing lifelike and distinct whereas a counterfeit usually looks lifeless, dull and flat. Details merge into the background and are often dark or mottled.

The exquisite, detailed lines in the outer margin and scrollwork of a genuine bill are clear and unbroken. On a counterfeit, the lines in the may be blurred.

Look at the Federal Reserve and Treasury Seals on a real note. It will have saw-tooth points that are clear, distinct, and sharp. The counterfeit may have uneven, blunt, or broken points.

Something else to look at is the serial numbers. Genuine serial numbers are evenly spaced and printed in the same color as the Treasury Seal. On a counterfeit, the numbers may not be the same color or shade. And the numbers may not be uniformly spaced or aligned.

The paper currency is printed on has tiny red and blue fibers embedded in it. Counterfeiters often try simulating them by printing the tiny red and blue lines. Close inspection however, will usually detect these discrepancies.


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