Towards the end of the 10th Century, China’s Song Dynasty rulers were among the first to come up with the idea of issuing banknotes. The notes were created using the cutting edge substrate of the time – paper – and could be issued by a wide range of people and organisations.
By the very early 11th Century, the right to issue banknotes had been curtailed. Only 16 merchants were given the right to print and circulate the money. Security features at the time included seals, stamps, complex designs – and the death penalty for counterfeiting.
Even so, counterfeiters flourished and, before long, the currency was brought under the control of a single issuer, the Government.
Fast forward a thousand years or so, and the battle against counterfeiters is still ongoing. As paper is no longer cutting edge technology, but is still used by over 90% of currencies, it’s vulnerable to counterfeiters.
Although not immune, more modern polymer banknotes are far less prone to counterfeiting. In fact, wherever polymer banknotes are introduced, there is an immediate fall in counterfeiting rates.
As new security features are introduced – either on paper or polymer – counterfeiters look for ways to replicate or imitate them.
CCL Secure, which specialises in polymer banknotes, sees counterfeiting as a perennial challenge. “It’s an endless game of cat and mouse,” says Dr. Tim Berridge, CCL Secure’s Director of R&D, Marketing and Design.
“Our GUARDIAN™ and SPARTAN™ polymer substrates have some inherent security advantages, simply because they’re made from polymer films that are created solely for banknotes. But, even so, we’re constantly investing in the creation of new, more sophisticated security features to make the job of the counterfeiters even harder.”
Counterfeit currency is a sensitive issue, so exact global figures are difficult to pin down. In some countries and regions, however, reports on counterfeiting rates are issued regularly.
In the USA, the Secret Service prevented over $73 million of counterfeits coming into circulation in just one year in 2017.
In the EU, the European Central Bank reported that counterfeit rates for 2020 had dropped as low as 17 per million, or around 460,000 notes out of 27 billion in circulation.
The Bank of England reports that, in 2020, less than 0.005% of its banknotes were taken out of circulation as counterfeits. This is 170,000 notes out of a total of 4.2 billion and includes paper notes. A new polymer £20 note introduced in 2020 will ultimately replace the paper version which accounts for 90% of forgeries in the UK.
Although these figures are relatively low, the threat from counterfeiting is still a serious one. Once counterfeit notes become widespread, they can undermine confidence in the currency with negative effects on the economy as a whole.
So, not surprisingly, security is still the key issue for central banks as part of their overall policy for managing the currency of their country. Law enforcement, public education about how to identify genuine banknotes, the maintenance of a supply of clean notes that are fit for purpose…all of these are important factors, but security is the most important when it comes to creating and maintaining public confidence in banknotes.
A Brief History of Currency Counterfeiting, Reserve Bank of Australia, Richard Finlay and Anny Francis, 19/09/2019, https://www.rba.gov.au/publications/bulletin/2019/sep/a-brief-history-of-currency-counterfeiting.html
In 2005, Mexico’s $50 paper banknote was Mexico’s most counterfeited denomination, reaching rates of around 250 counterfeit notes per million in circulation. Clearly, something had to be done.
Banco de México acted swiftly to transition the note to CCL Secure’s GUARDIAN polymer substrate and saw counterfeit rates call to less than 32 per million by 2009, repeating the success of the $20 note, which had already transitioned to GUARDIAN.
There was, however, a twist in the tale. In 2010, a gang of professional counterfeiters invested heavily in significant resources and sophisticated technologies to attack the new $50 note.
Banco de México’s response was simple. Working with CCL Secure’s designers, the design of the $50 note was upgraded to incorporate new security features that were much harder to replicate.
The new version of the note was issued in May 2013 and had an immediate effect on the number of counterfeits. By 2016, the $50 and $20 banknotes were once again the least counterfeited notes in Mexico. In the meantime, law enforcement caught up with the gang who were all arrested.
Annual Report 2017, US Secret Service, https://www.secretservice.gov/library/reports
Euro banknote counterfeiting at historically low level in 2020, European Central Bank Press Release, January 2021, https://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/pr/date/2021/html/ecb.pr210122~5b82ddc7b9.en.html
Counterfeit Banknotes, Bank of England, as at 15/06/2021, https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/counterfeit-banknotes
iNews, Britain’s Counterfeit Economy, https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/britain-counterfeit-fake-money-economy-dog-walker-find-crime-858406 published 05/02/2021
Exclusive and innovative materials are only one part of the story. A battery of security features are also important weapons in the armoury that protects banknotes against counterfeiters. While some features can be applied to either paper or polymer, some of the most effective are exclusive to polymer.
One of the original and still one of the most distinctive security features in GUARDIAN polymer banknotes is the transparent window. “Amateur imitations of polymer banknotes are rare,” says Gustavo Ascenzo, CCL Secure’s Director of Business Development for Latin America. “This is due to the difficulty of printing on plastic and the impossibility of reproducing transparencies with photocopiers, printers or home scanners. To make a window, an amateur counterfeiter must have extremely advanced manual skills in order to cut the substrate and add inserts. Experience shows us that these imitations are rough and obvious.”
Other features are equally challenging for counterfeiters. These include cameos that can be checked without needing rear illumination, features that work on both sides of the banknote, holograms, colour shifting effects, and lens based features. In addition, conventional security print features – such as foils, screen print, intaglio and offset line work all work better on the smooth surface of polymer.
In order to achieve higher quality counterfeits, professional criminal gangs will attempt to recruit experts with extensive knowledge in printing. The existence of large gangs employing a number of other professionals, however, tends to make it easier for police authorities to trace and catch them. Consequently, law enforcement can be deployed more easily against these bigger targets.
In the Mexican 50 Peso case, for instance, the gang took several months to achieve a passable imitation of the substrate, had to pay for the formulation of special inks, and had to source a complex printing process that involved 18 steps of offset, four steps of silk screen and a further two steps carried out manually. All to reproduce a design that, in today’s terms, was relatively simple.
In effect, a polymer banknote substrate effectively eliminates high quality counterfeits that can be produced by amateurs with readily available equipment.
CCL Secure’s polymer is all sourced from their sister company Innovia Films, who produce specialist films that are created exclusively for use with banknotes.
These bank-grade polymers, which are not used for any other purpose, are produced using a special process that involves creating a bubble of polymer that is four storeys high. The polymer has specific characteristics that can easily be identified as the genuine article using forensic techniques.
A spokesperson for Innovia Films Analytic Services, says “In order to copy the Propanote™ Clarity C base film used in GUARDIAN, counterfeiters have sometimes resorted to making elaborate multilayer laminates from a variety of commercially available packaging films. However, our unique method of manufacture, the closely controlled thickness and other characteristics are almost impossible to forge.” Innovia’s forensic laboratory at Wigton uses a range of techniques to quickly identify rogue materials.
By setting the barriers high, cases of counterfeiting of polymer banknotes are few and far between compared to paper, though they do still occur. A recent example saw a professional gang arrested for attempting to counterfeit Romanian 100 Leu notes.
Working with Europol, the Romanian Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) tracked down and broke up the gang. The Leu was the first European polymer note, introduced over 15 years ago. The gang began operating in 2014 and, while they were operating, produced around 17,000 notes, with a face value of 1.7 million Leu (€374,000).
To put this in context, there are around 92 billion Leu currently in circulation. This means that – over 6 years – counterfeits were less than 0.018% of the cash in circulation.
Although the counterfeits were relatively high quality, the production process was both slow and complex. The gang also tried to avoid evasion by introducing only very small quantities of the note at any one time. However, once the counterfeits were detected, it was only a matter of time before the counterfeiters were tracked down. Hard work for little reward and – ultimately – criminal punishment.
The more security features that can be built into a note, the harder it is to counterfeit successfully.
In the past year alone, CCL Secure has added two new features to its already formidable set of security features.
CINEMA™ brings 3D and movement effects that are integrated directly into GUARDIAN substrate.
A second new feature VIVID™ Colour enables a monochrome image to be transformed into a full colour, photographic quality image under UV light.
Both features have already been used on a note – the Banque du Liban’s 100,000 Livres note, launched at the end of 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Lebanon.
In the “endless game of cat and mouse”, the constant evolution of security features – such as CINEMA and VIVID Colour– set the barriers against counterfeiting ever higher.