New Benjamins Keep Counterfeiters Busy

Another day, another hundred-dollar bill. The 145-year old game of constantly one-upping counterfeiters has entered an exciting new stage, as the Treasury Department has redesigned the $100 bill to thwart the latest forgeries. Since the $100 bill is the most widely circulated and counterfeited denomination outside of the U.S., the move marks an important battle in the war on counterfeiting. But is this a war worth fighting?

After all, 145 years is a long time to be doing this. Counterfeiting has never been completely prevented, especially in this day and age given all the rapid advances in technology. Currently less than 1/100th of one percent of the value of all U.S. currency in circulation is reported counterfeit, so it may be fair to say that this ongoing anti-counterfeiting campaign has worked to some degree.

This new $100 note has reversed the picture of Independence Hall on the back of the bill and removed the oval around it and Benjamin Franklin’s portrait on the front of the bill. The security thread, portrait watermark of Benjamin Franklin and color-shifting numeral 100 have been retained from the last $100 design, while symbols of the founding have been added to the right of the bill’s portrait, including phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the quill used to sign it.

Now that the $100 bill has been redesigned, the next step is educating the public about the change. The idea is that you would be able to look at this new $100 bill and be able to tell that it’s the real deal with minimal scrutiny. The Treasury Department prides itself on how successful this educational campaign has been over the years. Of course, if someone’s going to pay with a $100 bill, it makes sense that the merchant or person receiving the cash would take all necessary steps to ensure that the money is real – in this day and age, who really takes the chance? We’re all suspicious of each other, so it’s no wonder this is the most effective part of the anti-counterfeiting process. In fact, if the money someone handed me wasn’t covered in paint and little holographic numbers, I would be more suspicious; even without knowing all the little details of the new $100, the money would seem more authentic in light of the changes in the other denominations during my lifetime.

Part of me misses the simplicity of our older bills, but I suppose they were just too easy to duplicate, seeing as we’ve been redesigning them every few years. I thought the random splashes of shiny color were weird when they first appeared on my $20 and then my $5 bills, and all the little hidden things all over the money, while cool, do strike me as a bit silly. Logically, if they were effective, would we really be redesigning them again? Seems like a waste of money to keep overloading our bills with the latest security feature if they are just going to get copied again in no time. On the other hand, just because the latest bill is going to get copied one day is no reason to stop the process of advancing security measures. We’ve been doing this forever. Clearly it’s never safe to stop tweaking our money.

Critics will point out that no matter what we throw on our dollar bills, money launderers and counterfeiters will still find a way to copy it, necessitating newer forms of currency. In effect, it’s an endless process, one that will require the continual printing of newer, more secure bills – which means more money invested into the process. But this is a good thing. Counterfeiters will challenge the Treasury Department to come up with newer, more innovative ways to keep the currency from being duplicated, and in turn, counterfeiters will be temporarily incapable of successfully carrying out their schemes while they learn how to eventually imitate the newest bills as closely as they can. As time goes on, the security methods can only improve, making this period of trial and error for the counterfeiters longer – ideally leading to a point where they can no longer effectively counterfeit the currency. Well, we can dream.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.