“The classic movie cliché of the ink-stained master engraver painstakingly touching up his counterfeit printing plates has now given way to amateurs…”

U.S. House Banking Committee Chairman Michael Castle

Counterfeiting, especially the emerging hobby of desktop counterfeiting, strikes right at the heart of Mammon, pissing on its ultimate sacrament.

“Counterfeiting was once the domain of skilled crooks who needed expensive engraving and printing equipment,” writes desktop publisher Doug McClellan, “But as the prices of desktop-publishing systems have dropped, counterfeiting has gone mainstream. Personal computers with the graphics needed for counterfeiting are now available for a few hundred dollars…. [D]esktop counterfeiters are much harder to catch because the systems they use are ubiquitous and the number of forgeries they produce are typically small.”

“Because U.S. currency is universally accepted and trusted,” writes a representative of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, “it is widely counterfeited.” U.S. Secret Service spokesman Carl Meyer acknowledges that the prestige of the greenback is only part of the problem: “U.S. currency is not only the most desirable currency in the world. It is also the most easily counterfeited.”

“Intelligence analysts,” according to a paper from the Henry L. Stimson Center, “traced much of the increase to a group of highly-skilled counterfeiters backed by Iran and Syria, who have produced as much as $1 billion in superb reproductions of the old U.S. $100 bill.” (As a point of comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing makes about $9 billion in bank notes each year).

An unknown nation (variously described as Middle-Eastern or as North Korea depending on whom the United States wants to bomb this week) is allegedly sponsoring the mass printing of what worried officials call the Superdollar.

An end-of-the-century raid in the Philippines found a counterfeiter with more than $50 billion in U.S. currency and treasury notes. Another source claims that in 1989 fully 82% of the U.S. hundred-dollar bills circulating in Europe were counterfeits.

Meanwhile, counterfeiters in Colombia are suspected of manufacturing more than a third of the counterfeit notes seized in the U.S. in 1999.

The Treasury Department is proud of the newly designed bills, with their Optically Variable Ink and other high-tech anti-counterfeiting elements, but even these new bills are being faked. (Back to the drawing board, and back to the drawing board again.) “Some have been deceptive enough to get by a clerk in a grocery or retail store,” said Secret Service Special Agent Arnette Heinze, “but in virtually every case they’ve been detected at the bank or through the Federal Reserve system.”

Alas, since most of the economic transactions in the world involve neither a bank nor the Federal Reserve system, the economy remains quite vulnerable to the counterfeiter’s art.

And if you can’t counterfeit money, you could try counterfeiting a whole bank. That’s what Matthew Hattabaugh did. He pulled in $650,000 worth of deposits and was about to land over $4 million more before he got caught.

The trick works both ways, of course: lots of people fool banks by setting up accounts under fictitious names.

Some artists have made some interesting counterfeit postage stamps, including “a caning stamp for Singapore; a Chinese stamp depicting the Tiananmen Square crackdown; a South African stamp devoted to ‘the necklace.’ (Not ‘necklace’ as in jewelry — ‘necklace’ as in a burning tire slung around a victim’s neck.)” They send these stamps through the postal system, and then hang the cancelled envelopes on gallery walls.

A company called Envisions used the new counterfeit-resistant U.S. bills to advertise their color scanner. Their ad featured a scanned image of the microprinting on the new $100 bill: “No other scanner can scan a hundred bucks and capture the hidden detail as well as ours.” Bowing to pressure from an alarmed U.S. Secret Service, Envisions stopped using the ad.

“In 1995,” according to one report of testimony before the House Banking Committee, “only one-half percent of counterfeit money was produced electronically. So far in 1998, that has jumped to 43 percent…” Committee chairman Michael Castle put it this way: “The classic movie cliché of the ink-stained master engraver painstakingly touching up his counterfeit printing plates has now given way to amateurs, often suburban teen-aged computer hackers, or drug-dealing urban street gangs.”

Or artists, for that matter. A fellow by the name of J.S.G. Boggs has been making detailed drawings of world currency and selling them as art objects. Ira Glass describes how this works:

He draws only one side of a bill. But he doesn’t sell these drawings. Instead, he takes a drawing of, say, a $20 bill out with him to a restaurant, and when it comes time to pay the check, he tries to talk the waitress into accepting the drawing of $20 as his payment. He explains that the value of any work of art is set arbitrarily, so he’s decided to set the value of the drawing of a $20 bill at $20. If she accepts the drawing she’ll have to give him change and a receipt.

Many people don’t accept the drawing. Some do. If they do, the next day Boggs provides a copy of the receipt to one of the many people who collect his work, and that person will come hunting down the drawing. The collector will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for the little drawing. The waitress will clean up.

What I love about this is that it’s a con game, run in reverse. If the person falls for the game, they come out of it far wealthier than they went in. As [Lawrence] Weschler puts it in his joyous little book, Boggs operates “a sort of floating æsthetical ethical crap game. Or else a sort of fairy-tale virtue test, in which the worthy agreed to sacrifice and [are] subsequently rewarded a hundredfold.”

At the beginning of our presentation at the Art Institute, Boggs… ordered some pizzas… asked the delivery guy up onstage, and tried to pay for the food with a drawing of a $50 bill…. The guy delivering the pizzas suddenly found himself standing on a stage, lots of people watching, being asked to make a decision: Did he want Boggs to give him $50 in real cash — or did he want the drawing instead?… All the poor guy knew is that if he didn’t show up back at work with real American currency to cover those pizzas he took out, he’d be in trouble. He turned down the deal. It was hard not to jump in and just tell him: “You can make a thousand dollars here! Take the drawing!”

Another artist in this genre, Levente Jakab, says “I’ve been drawing pictures of money for as long as I can remember… including as far back as 1986 or so, but I only started attempting to make the bill look ‘correct’ around 1990 (I was 9 at the time). The interest picked up steam a few years later, and there was a time when I was cranking them out by the multiples; as much as three per day!”

Whoops! Kids Caught Passing Xerox $20
Whoops! Kids Caught Passing Xerox $20

Boggs’s “Drawing of a £5 Note”
Boggs’s “Drawing of a £5 Note”

Another Boggs bill
Another Boggs bill

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