The Progression of Counterfeiting Throughout US History

Posted: 2/24/2015 by Zachary Habermas, PMG

The advancement of anti-counterfeiting techniques has drastically reduced the circulation of counterfeit currency.

As long as there has been paper money in the United States, there have been counterfeit notes. Counterfeiting has been a troubling problem, even stretching as far back as the colonial period. Counterfeiters have ranged from conmen trying to make a buck to foreign governments trying to destabilize the US economy. These counterfeits have also varied in quality; from crude inkjet copies to ones that have been given the infamous title of “supernotes.” Today I’m going to show a few examples of counterfeiting and their counterfeiters throughout US history.p>

Colonial Period

Colonial currency often comes with the stark warning “to counterfeit is death,” however, this threat proved insufficient to stop most counterfeiters. At this period of time, coins were more popular than banknotes. However, due to a precious metal shortage in the English empire, they were forced to print paper money to keep up with demand. As the colonies began their march towards independence, they became increasingly dependent on this currency, using it to fund the war efforts. People were often distrustful of the currency and demanded a premium for it. To make matters worse, the British began to pump in countless amounts of fake currency to weaken the economy and any attempts to achieve independence. This became the first time counterfeiting had been used as a tactic in war.

Counterfeits can be difficult to detect if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Some letters in the text may be shaped or spaced differently than the genuine note while others might have forged signatures. When these counterfeits were found, they were often crossed out with a large X or had “counterfeit” written on them. Unlike most counterfeits of US money, these are legal to own and collect, thus making them an interesting part of American history to have. Below are some examples of counterfeits of colonial currency. If you would like to know more about them you can check out The Early Paper Money of America by Eric P. Newman.

Counterfeit Massachusetts Colonial Note

Obsolete Currency

Throughout the 1800s a countless number of banks, companies and merchants issued their own currency. This lasted until 1865 with the passage of the National Banking Acts which established national banks throughout the US and barring private banks from issuing their own currency. With so many different types of currency floating around, there was ample motive to start counterfeiting these notes. Counterfeiting was especially painful for these banks as the fought for customers. If a large enough amount of counterfeits got out it could cause the bank to collapse, and many of them did. Detecting these counterfeits can be relatively simple with enough research and, like colonial counterfeits, are legal to own. Oftentimes the designs on counterfeits are much cruder than the genuine. In addition to this the signatures might be forged. In some cases only the counterfeit version of the note is available, with no known cases of the original existing. Below is an example of a counterfeit obsolete from Kentucky. Notice how bad Washington’s face is at the bottom right.

Counterfeit Kentucky Note

Late 19th Century Currency

With the dissolution of private bank currency and the supremacy of federal US currency taking hold, the US began to take counterfeiting more seriously. Excessive counterfeiting could have caused great damage to US economy, especially coming out of a devastating civil war. Thus the Secret Service was founded in 1865 to combat counterfeiting. While this helped tamp down counterfeiting, there were still some notable examples.

Emanuel Ninger began counterfeiting in 1878. He worked mostly on high denominations like $20, $50 and $100 notes which were worth between $480 and $2400 dollars in today’s money. Often taking weeks to complete a single note, he would painstakingly hand draw each one. While, by no means perfect (he omitted the Bureau of Engraving and Printing credit because he said they didn’t make them, so why put their name on it?) his counterfeits were good enough to fool merchants. He was only caught after one of his notes got wet after paying a bartender and the ink began to run. During his eighteen year career he managed to create over 390 notes. Below is an example of a Ninger counterfeit and the genuine (note the lack of BEP credit at the far left). These notes can be quite valuable, but don’t expect finding one on eBay, they are illegal to own and possessing one could land you in prison or with a hefty fine.

Counterfeit $100 Note
Genuine $100 Note

Can you spot the difference between the two notes?

Modern Day

Today, anti-counterfeiting techniques have made huge advancements and in 2001 it was determined that less than .01% of the $600 billion of US currency in circulation were counterfeits. The use of watermarks, security threads, UV ink and other devices have helped keep US notes difficult to counterfeit and thus are looked upon as a safe bet in foreign markets. While the advancements have weeded out most counterfeiters, the most determined ones remain and are still attempting to create the best counterfeit.

The term “supernote” is given to very high quality US counterfeits that have been made by some organization or foreign government. These would be virtually indistinguishable to the average person and even someone who deals with currency everyday might be fooled by these notes. These notes have watermarks and the same type of color changing ink used in genuine notes. The giveaways are usually very minute differences in the design of the note, such as lines being more defined than they should be.

While these supernotes are a problem, the vast majority of counterfeit US notes today are done by inkjet or other printers, making them easily identifiable as fakes. There will probably never be a day when counterfeiting is completely wiped out. There will always be opportunistic criminals or malevolent forces trying to beat the Secret Service, so the best we can do is keep our eyes peeled and try to contain the counterfeiting to a manageable amount.



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