The eternal fake chase

D. Murali | Updated on October 30, 2011


The most deceptive dollar counterfeits on the market come from North Korea, where the government covertly forges American bills and then launders or wholesales them abroad, writes Ben Tarnoff in ‘ Moneymakers: The wicked lives and surprising adventures of three notorious counterfeiters' ( Printed with highly sophisticated intaglio presses – most likely at a secret factory about twenty miles from Pyongyang, the capital – the North Korean fakes are so difficult to detect they are known as supernotes, he adds. “While North Korea officially denies involvement, the American government has openly accused the regime of counterfeiting, and continues to use both law enforcement and diplomacy to combat the spread of the supernotes.”

As the dollar has become global, so has the counterfeiting of the US currency, the book notes. It mentions that, for decades, Colombia produced most of the fake money coming into the US, supplying up to 70 per cent of the counterfeit bills passed every year. “A crackdown begun in the late 1990s by the Secret Service and the Colombian government brought this number down to 5 per cent, but moneymaking hubs have sprung up elsewhere – notably Peru, which is now the region's major producer of counterfeit American cash.”

The most recent report in > (2010) states that since its inception in 2001, Project Colombia partners have seized approximately $263 million in counterfeit US currency, arrested nearly 700 suspects, suppressed more than 110 counterfeit printing plants and reduced by 72 per cent (up six per cent from FY 2008) the amount of Colombia-originated counterfeit US currency passed within the US. It should be of interest to know that the agency was formed in 1865 to combat the widespread counterfeiting of the US currency, which, at the time, was threatening the financial infrastructure of the country.

Counterfeiting history

Few countries have had as rich a counterfeiting history as America, traces the author. He narrates that, in the centuries before the Civil War, the absence of a strong central government, an anarchic economic system, and the irrepressibly entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens helped make the country a haven for counterfeiters. “Before the war, state-chartered banks across the country printed notes of various designs and denominations, which made counterfeiting fairly easy. Under Lincoln, the government began phasing out these banks and creating a uniform national currency.”

Early in the series of currency experiments were the strategies developed by the American settlers in the seventeenth century to use an Indian currency called wampum that consisted of beads of shell strung together on a thread; but widespread counterfeiting soon made it worthless, recounts the intro chapter. “Since blue wampum was more valuable than white wampum, Indians often dyed their shells to sell them at a higher price, and diluted the threads with pieces of stone, bones, and glass.”

Apart from the elaborate discussion of colourful counterfeiters in American history – viz. Owen Sullivan, David Lewis, and Samuel Curtis Upham – the book introduces one to other characters worth remembering, such as Mary Peck Butterworth, a housewife from Massachusetts, who during the early eighteenth century ran a counterfeiting operation out of her kitchen with the help of a hot iron. She would cover a note with a strip of damp muslin and run her iron over it, transferring the bill's design to the fabric, which she then imprinted onto a blank piece of paper, the author describes. “She made a fortune selling the notes to her husband's friends. When the authorities learned of Butterworth's activities and came to arrest her, they couldn't find a shred of incriminating evidence, just an ironing board and a few burnt scraps of muslin in the fireplace.”

The book wraps up with an ominous observation, that today the legacy of counterfeiting can be felt on Wall Street, where people wield complex financial instruments like magic wands, spinning false fortunes out of the ether of global capitalism.

A value-for-money read, even if you were to invest in buying it in original.


Published on October 30, 2011

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