Counterfeiting cat-and-mouse

No technology is perfect, but new anti-copying measures raise the stakes again.

Currency makers are fighting a constant battle to stay ahead of counterfeiters, and the bills in your wallet are the product of countless hours of R&D, combining some of the latest developments in chemistry, physics and material science. And with both Canada and the U.S. introducing new bills next year, they’re about to become a lot more sophisticated.

U.S. officials recently unveiled the new $100 bill, which features a wide ribbon that displays moving images when tilted. A stream of bells and the number 100 float along the ribbon in counterintuitive directions; tilt the bill side-to-side, and the images move up and down. The illusion is created by a layer of nearly one million tiny lenses overtop the images.

“The security ribbon is going to pose a tremendous burden to counterfeiters,” says Michael Lambert, an assistant director at the Federal Reserve Board. The technology had been under development since 2004 by Crane & Co., the Massachusetts-based company that has supplied the U.S. with currency paper since 1879. Even though the ribbon is complex, counterfeiters will no doubt try to replicate it, forcing central banks to explore new features.

An emerging tech?nology called quantum dots could be?come a widespread anti-counterfeit measure. These particles, about 10 to 20 nanometres in diameter, consist of a semiconductor material, such as cadmium, in a zinc shell, and emit an intense light. Many currencies already have watermarks, but quantum dots can display a whole range of colours under a UV light, whereas current dyes can only display a single band. “There’s no other chemical entity like them,” says Vicki Singer, senior consultant for corporate development at Life Technologies in California, which manufactures quantum dots. The process to create them is mind-bogglingly complicated, unlike today’s dyes. Singer won’t divulge which central banks are interested in the technology, nor if it’s being used in some form already, and others in the industry are not aware of any currency using quantum dots today.

“It’s certainly an area that’s interesting,” says Doug Crane, vice-president at Crane & Co. “But it’s not an overt security device for the public.” Crane argues ideal security features are instantly recognizable to anyone, without the use of equipment. Cost is always a factor when implementing a new feature, as well. The new U.S. $100 bill, for all of its purported advances, costs only an extra 3.5cents to produce.

The Bank of Canada is also ushering in a new era of currency security, but won’t reveal much about the bills debuting next year, other than that they will be made of plastic. “The material permits us to incorporate security features that are more difficult to counterfeit,” says Bank of Canada spokesperson Julie Girard. Canada was among the worst countries for counterfeiting a few years ago, but increased enforcement measures are reducing the problem. Plastic banknotes may help even further.

The first plastic bill was introduced in 1988 in Australia. The primary benefit is durability (the bills supposedly last two to four times longer than paper), but research on the material began as a way to thwart counterfeiting. Plastic allows manufacturers to easily include a transparent window in bills, and laser etching a hologram into the window, as Australia does, makes accurate forgery very difficult. Counterfeiting is negligible in Australia today.

Those who manufacture paper currency are skeptical. “Nobody around the world was trying to counterfeit the Australian dollar,” counters Chad Wasilenkoff, CEO of Fortress Paper in Vancouver. “It’s a relatively closed geographic area.” Fortress is the sole manufacturer of Swiss banknotes, and last December launched a new bill with a layer of plastic sandwiched between two layers of paper. The bill allows for a window without sacrificing the feel of a banknote.

Texture is generally the first line of defense against counterfeiting, which is where plastic currency runs into difficulty. “It’s not very hard to replicate from a feel point of view,” Crane says. While both sides of the paper-versus-plastic debate may claim superiority, neither is bold enough to assert a bill can deter counterfeiters entirely – no matter how advanced the technology becomes. “For criminals who make their livelihood out of counterfeiting currency,” says Lambert at the Fed, “they’re always going to look for ways to do it.”