A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Were magnetic strips put in U.S. currency so the feds could track your money?

June 24, 1994

Dear Cecil:

I notice magnetic strips have been placed in bills denominated $10 and up, 1990 series and later. I have been told this is part of an anticounterfeiting scheme, but I wonder. Can airports or other places with metal detectors pick up the dollar amounts when you pass through the gates? Is this another attempt by Big Brother to keep tabs on us?

Cecil replies:

Oh, right, like the government has nothing better to do than count your bankroll by remote control. Conceivably it would be useful to know if some international drug smuggler were trying to sneak a suitcase full of twenties on the next flight to Little Rock, but the "magnetic strips" — actually they're nonmagnetic polyester filaments — won't help Big Brother do that either. The filament, which is embedded in the bill to the left of the Federal Reserve seal and says USA TWENTY, is strictly an anticounterfeiting move. High quality color photocopiers have made counterfeiting easy and the number of fakes out there has been rising fast. Since it's embedded in the bill, the polyester filament won't be picked up by the copier and the lettering won't be visible when you hold the fake bill up to the light.

A more subtle anticounterfeiting measure, also introduced in 1990, is "microprinting," which consists of the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA printed repeatedly in 0.001-point type around the portrait of the bill. The type is unreadable by the naked eye and can't be picked up by copiers, but high-speed counting equipment at the Federal Reserve will yank out any microprintingless bills it detects.

There's also magnetic printing on U.S. currency — always has been, in fact. But it can't be detected from afar and even detecting it close up requires a more expensive bill validating device than the average vending machine manufacturer wants to invest in. Most bill-accepting machines strictly check optical characteristics and so can be fooled by a good copy. For added realism, put your fakes in a nylon stocking with some pebbles and give them a 10 minute rinse in a washing machine. That'll dull the finish and give them a worn appearance, meaning you'll be able to con not only electronic eyes but human ones too.

I learn all this from Frank Abagnale, a convicted check forger turned D.C.-based consultant who makes his money telling banks how to avoid getting scammed by the likes of his former self. He reports that if you use rice paper in a Canon 500 color copier you can make fake money that's virtually impossible to distinguish from the genuine article on casual examination. The copies are so good that the government prevailed upon Canon to replace the 500 with a new model, the 550, which has a computer chip that detects when you're trying to copy money and prints a black block instead.

Even better fakes are being cranked out now in countries like Iran. Apparently the bad guys (the Iranian government?) got hold of a multimillion dollar intaglio printing press like the ones the feds use. They've cranked out anywhere from one to 20 billion dollars of fake cash, most of which is circulating in the Middle East. But it's started to show up here too, and some officials are so alarmed they're urging that $100 bills be abolished. The Drug Enforcement Administration is all for it because big bills are used so often in drug deals.

Many countries use high-tech anticounterfeiting stratagems in their currency such as holograms and multiple color printing. By comparison, faking a U.S. bill, whose basic two-color design hasn't changed since 1913, is child's play. Recently there was a proposal to change to a more elaborate design, but it won't help if the public doesn't get a clue. To demonstrate how easy it was to pass fake money for a TV news story, Frank Abagnale with the blessing of federal agents made some crude counterfeits on ordinary bond paper in an unsophisticated Canon 200 copier and successfully passed them at 10 stores in Philadelphia. Only one merchant noticed anything funny about the money, and he merely commented that, gosh, he hadn't realized the government was changing the paper it used to print currency. Excuse me, can anyone lend me carfare to Philadelphia? I want to see if I can sell 'em a bridge.

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