Mass. firm adds razzle-dazzle to cash
Currency paper has high-tech protections
DALTON — Giant, rumbling machines fill the factory, the sound of turning gears echoing off walls as they press, stretch, and spool sheaths of paper into what look like 4-foot-wide rolls of toilet tissue. But this paper will be used for redesigned $100 bills the Federal Reserve plans to issue in February — the next step in its constant quest to thwart counterfeiters.
Crane & Co., known better for its pricey stationery, runs the plant in a secluded swatch of the Berkshires. It is the only spot in the United States where the paper that winds up in wallets, purses, and cash registers is made, and Crane has been the sole maker of US currency paper — everything from $1 to $100 notes — for more than 130 years.
Counterfeiting has been a problem even longer, cropping up soon after the United States started printing its national currency. Today, the challenge has grown as cheap copiers and scanners make it easier to start small-scale counterfeit operations anywhere in the world, said Max Milien, a spokesman for the Secret Service.
“Economic times are hard, unfortunately,’’ he said. “People are willing to try anything.’’
The most advanced and costly technology in the new $100 bill is a three-dimensional security ribbon — manufactured by Crane in an undisclosed location outside Massachusetts — which is woven into the paper next to Benjamin Franklin’s portrait.
The blue strip, less than half an inch wide, contains more than a million, microscopic lenses on the surface. Each lens acts like a tiny projector, magnifying the ink images printed underneath. Together, the lenses produce two sets of images — bells and the number 100 — that move around and morph into one another as the paper is tilted.
Shifting images make it harder for counterfeiters to create forgeries, and the moving bells and 100s are easy-to-spot, easy-to-explain features anyone can check just by bending the bill back and forth.
The other new security measure is an image of a bell inside a copper inkwell, also on the front of the note. As the bill is moved, the bell changes color, blending in with the inkwell when it turns copper and reappearing when it turns green.
By September, Crane must produce enough paper for 2.4 billion revamped $100 notes. (At any given moment, 6.5 billion of the bills are circulating, most of them abroad.)
Larry Felix, the head bill maker for the United States government, oversees the actual printing of the money in plants in Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth. As director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, he also makes sure the Federal Reserve has enough paper currency to replenish the nearly $900 billion circulating worldwide.
Felix knows from personal experience how fears of counterfeiting can affect day-to-day dealings. Once while taking a taxi in Brooklyn, N.Y., he tried to pay his cab fare with a $20 bill. The cabbie wouldn’t accept it because there had just been a spate of counterfeiting.
Felix was forced to stop in a store, buy a bottle of water to make change, and pay his fare in smaller bills.
“Imagine if this were widespread — it grinds commerce to a halt,’’ he said. “If you lose the confidence of the American public, you can’t gain it back.’’
The redesign added $90 million to the cost of filling the new order of $100 notes — more than the estimated $70 million in counterfeit money passed last year in the United States. (Overseas, only $5 million made it past the Secret Service.)
The pricey makeover might seem like overkill, but beating counterfeiters is a game the federal government cannot lose, Felix said. He also said the government is always on the lookout for developing technologies that, in several years’ time, could be used in American currency and further distinguish it from foreign ones.
Even so, world travelers might recognize similar security devices in other countries’ money — like the embedded threads in the Korean 50,000 won note or the Swedish 1,000 kronor bill.
As the owner of the anticounterfeit measures used in American money, Crane has the right to sell other versions of the technology abroad — which the US government always gets nervous about, Felix said.
Almost a third of Crane’s revenue comes from its contracts with the US government for currency paper. But even more comes from its deals with foreign governments to make currency paper and print their money, said Doug Crane, a seventh-generation member of the family who oversees the currency division.
“Crane spent a lot of money on this technology, and now they want to make the money back,’’ Felix said. “We are working together so they don’t proliferate this technology to a degree that hurts US interests. But typically, those are gentlemen’s agreements — they are not legally bound.’’
Despite the new high-tech features, the most effective — and intuitive — protection for American money might be something much simpler.
“The very first thing you do when you take a note is you just sort of feel it, and you immediately, subconsciously, authenticate that note,’’ Crane said. “The majority of counterfeits that are caught in circulation are caught because they don’t feel correct.’’
So if you’re ever unsure about some money in hand, give it a rub — and if it doesn’t feel real, it probably isn’t.
Patrick G. Lee can be reached at email@example.com.