U.S. redesigns currency to add security

Published 27 August 2007

$776 billion in U.S. currency —70 percent of which in $100 bills — is in circulation, two-thirds of which is held overseas; to make counterfeiting more difficult, a new security thread is approved for the bill

Follow the money — and the different security measures the U.S. government is introducing — in this case, to the $100 bill — to make this money more difficult to counterfeit. People who have seen to new design say that it may well cause double-takes. The new look comes at a time when counterfeiters are armed with ever-more sophisticated computers, scanners, and color copiers. The C-note, with features the image Benjamin Franklin, is the most frequent target of counterfeiters operating outside the United States.

The operation of the new security thread looks like something straight out of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it combines microprinting with tiny lenses — 650,000 for a single $100 bill. The lenses magnify the microprinting in a truly remarkable way. If you move the bill side to side, the image appears to move up and down. If you move the bill up and down, the image appears to move from side to side. “It is a really complex optical structure on a microscopic scale. It makes for a very compelling high security device,” said Douglas Crane, vice president at Dalton, Mass-based Crane & Co. which has a $46 million contract to produce the new security threads. Larry Felix, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, confirmed details about the security thread to AP. The redesign of the $100 is about one-third of the way complete. The bill is expected to go into circulation late next year.

Starting in 2003, splashes of color have enlivened the $20 bill and other currencies. Those changes followed the addition of a first round of security features in the mid-1990s. Benjamin Franklin’s latest makeover was delayed while the government searched for a high-tech security device that would provide extra protection on the bill. The $100 bill represents more than 70 percent of the $776 billion in currency in circulation, two-thirds of which is held overseas. Holograms, which are used extensively on credit cards, were considered for the $100, but were rejected because they did not offer the strong visual signal the government wanted. The new security thread is also used on the Swedish 1,000 kroner note and has been selected by the government of Mexico for some higher denomination notes.

Felix said many other devices — pastel colors, microprinting, etc. — expected to be included in the $100 redesign will be similar to features added over the past four years to the $20, $50, and $10 bills. Even the humble $5 bill will is undergoing a maek-over, and the new $5 design will be made public on 20 September, and will go into circulation early next year.

The U.S. government says $118.1 million in counterfeit U.S. currency was detected in 2006, an increase of 3.8 percent from 2005. Digital copies account for about half of all counterfeit notes passed in the U.S., compared with less than 1 percent of all counterfeit bills detected in 1995. To stay ahead of the counterfeiters, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plans to redesign U.S. currency every seven years to ten years. The new security devices have added to the complexity of making money. The government prints thirty-eight million notes each business day with a face value of $750 million at two facilities — one in Washington, D.C., and the newest one in Fort Worth, Texas. By order of Congress, the $1 bill, which accounts for 45 percent of the notes printed each year, will not be redesigned. Lawmakers were concerned about the cost to business if low-end vending machines that only take coins and $1 bills had to be upgraded.

Note that another change may be coming soon: The new printing presses the government uses can vary the size of the bills being printed. This is something the American Council for the Blind is urging the government to consider as a way of helping the visually impaired distinguish between different denominations of currency.

-read more about the history of U.S. currency at the Web site of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco