- The art of the Con
Counterfeiting of paper money in U.S. began back in the
colonial days. The records of colonial courthouses reveal numerous cases of
persons who stood trial for manufacturing or passing counterfeit money. Considering
the number of offenders who were never caught, the scope of counterfeiting must
have been alarming! And there was a good reason for that: it was easy work.
Colonial notes, issued by the various colonies, did not carry the complicated
engraving of late federal currency. The bills were mostly of small size, frequently
printed on one side only, and bore simple woodcut or engraved designs which
could be easily copied by anyone with some skill and the right tools without
much trouble. Another plus for counterfeiters was the lack of education on the
part of individuals who were accepting the fake notes. It has been estimated
that more then half of the notes circulating in certain colonies at any given
time were not genuine. Certainly, note-making gave the counterfeiter fewer challenges
than producing counterfeit coins, and the evidence could be destroyed much easier
and faster, if need be.
Bogus bills were also plentiful in
the first half of the 19th century, when currency notes were issued by individual
banks. Because of this, so many different notes circulated, each bearing their
own designs and symbols, money handlers had great difficulty recognizing counterfeits.
It was presumed that the introduction
of national paper currency in the 1860's would put most counterfeiters out of
business. This goal was not accomplished. In fact, it did just the opposite.
It gave counterfeiters greater encouragement, and while their ratio of success
declined, the amount bogus bills reaching circulation actually increased. Of
course, the government knew that its notes would be counterfeited. It attempted
to reduce counterfeiting as much as possible by using very elaborate designs
and fine engraving, since photomechanical copying techniques did not exist then,
and counterfeiters were required to hand engrave their plates.
Quantities of bogus notes were regularly
confiscated by authorities. Between June 1875 and June 1876 the federal government
seized counterfeit currency and coins of a total face value of about $232,000.
(It can be assumed that the extensive amount of this money was in notes.) At
least as much (and probably more) went undetected. By 1930 it was estimated
that about $750,000 worth of bogus bills were in circulation, and the problem
was growing at alarming pace. Counterfeiting increased sharply during the Depression.
At this time, the measures taken to
fight counterfeiting were quite unlike those of today. The Secret Service and
Treasury Department released photographs and details of counterfeit bills to
banks, but the public was kept more or less uninformed. It was believed that
disclosure of the extent of counterfeiting would only encourage more counterfeiting.
This policy changed in 1937 when Frank J. Wilson became head of the Secret Service.
Wilson ordered public disclosure of counterfeiters' methods of passing bogus
bills. Leaflets were distributed throughout the country to retail merchants
and lectures were instituted. A public-education motion picture called "Know
Your Money" was also produced. From June of 1941 to June of 1942, only
$48,000 worth of counterfeit notes were seizes - meaning that a lot less were
being successfully placed in circulation. However, the battle was not won. During
the 1950's counterfeiting became a serious menace again, thanks to advanced
technology available to counterfeiters, and the average annual seizure of bogus
bills exceeded $1,000,000! - The highest in nations's history. But there was
also a bright spot - less than 10% of the seized money had gotten into circulation.
Today, counterfeiting is still a prosperous trade.
Rashes of fake bills, usually all of the same denomination (face value), will
hit on of the major cities and are usually traced to a single source. Modern
counterfeits are nearly all photomechanical, and therefore do not carry the
mistakes of engraving often found on early efforts. However, they are no less
easily detectable, as the paper is not correct and the printing appears dull