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New $100 bills foil attempts at counterfeiting, officials say

Published Oct. 1, 2005

One year after its introduction, the newly designed $100 bill appears to be accepted at home and abroad and _ more important _ seems to be deterring counterfeiting.

Not that there haven't been attempts _ from the serious to the silly. The first try, less than two weeks after the bills' debut on March 25, 1996, occurred when a Gilbert, W. Va., teenager used his computer to make several versions _ some with his own portrait in place of Ben Franklin's.

Police said he apparently didn't intend to use any. They looked purplish. But his uncle was charged with trying to pass one at a gas station and a McDonald's restaurant.

In the largest, more serious attempt to date, four men from Kingston, Jamaica, were charged with printing more than $10-million in bogus C-notes in Miami. The four were arrested by undercover Secret Service agents on March 6 before they got a chance to pass any.

According to a federal indictment, they attempted to reproduce a key new security feature _ the color-shifting "100" in the notes' lower right corner. On genuine bills, the number appears green when viewed straight on but black when viewed at an angle.

In January, three men were arrested in St. Petersburg, Russia, after trying to sell 14 phony bills at a shopping mall. Russian police called them remarkably good fakes.

The Secret Service declined to comment on specific cases. But it says that while some counterfeits have attempted to duplicate some new security features, none has been what it terms "highly deceptive."

"Some have been deceptive enough to get by a clerk in a grocery or retail store," said Special Agent Arnette Heinze. "But in virtually every case they've been detected at the bank or through the Federal Reserve system."

Nevertheless, some customers are getting burned by counterfeit new notes, even though they're not of high quality, said a security director for a major bank with 600 branches across the Southeast.

"The merchant has a feel for the old bills and generally can identify them up front," said Boris Melnikoff, senior vice president of Wachovia Corp. in Atlanta. "But the new bills, being something entirely new, are being readily accepted."

"Until everyone becomes acclimated, we'll probably see an increase in this type of activity," he said.

However, Charles J. Bock Jr., director of fraud prevention and investigation for Chase Manhattan Corp. in New York, called the new notes "a phenomenal success."

Secret Service statistics tend to support that. From the introduction of the new notes through December, the agency seized $2-million fakes of the new design and $96.9-million of the old design.

Even with the addition of the Miami case, only $14.5-million in phony new notes have been seized through March 15, compared with total counterfeiting of all denominations of $268-million.

And most of that $14.5-million was discovered before getting to the public. Counterfeiters passed $494,500 of the new notes domestically and, overseas, only $6,800.

For those who know its features, the new C-note is easy to authenticate. There's the color-shifting ink in the lower right, a watermark in the shape of Franklin's portrait, a polymer security thread and in barely visible microprinting, the words "United States of America" on Franklin's coat.

The redesign, the first since 1929, was launched when counterfeiting was perceived as a growing problem. A so-called supernote had surfaced in Lebanon, where local officials estimated in 1995 that $2-billion in phony notes had been manufactured.

Treasury Department officials are pushing ahead with plans to issue a redesigned $50 note this fall and a new $20 bill next year, with new $10, $5 and $1 notes following.

C-note security

Security thread: A polymer thread embedded in the paper indicates each bill's denomination. It glows red when held up to ultraviolet light and cannot be duplicated by photocopies or computer scanners.

Portrait: The Benjamin Franklin portrait is now off center and enlarged with more detail. Reduces the wear and tear on the portrait caused by folding bank notes in half.

Microprinting: Microprinted words are hard to replicate without blurring. "USA 100" is microprinted within the denomination, while "United States of America" appears on Benjamin Franklin's lapel.

Ink: Color-shifting ink looks green when viewed straight on, but changes to black when the paper is held at an angle.

Watermark: Also depictes Benjamin Franklin but smaller than the main portrait.

Source: Department of the Treasury