Digital Technology Spurs World of Fakes

Because many people don't look closely, counterfeit money does not always need to have the security features of the real thing. A slapdash bill scanned on a computer and printed on the right paper stock might only have to feel good enough to pass casual muster at the local convenience store or fast-food joint.

"If somebody knows what features to look for and how to authenticate their genuine currency, the chances of them ever being taken by a counterfeit note are extremely remote," said Richard Stein, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service's counterfeiting division. "Counterfeiters do attempt to duplicate the security features, but nobody has truly been able to duplicate the features."

If there's a sucker born every minute, there was almost $82 in counterfeit money passed last year for each one of them, according to a federal estimate. Put another way, about $43 million in counterfeit money was passed to the public in 2002, and about $130 million was seized before being passed, Stein said.

In contrast to the apparent rising rate of product counterfeiting, Stein believes the dollar amount of currency counterfeiting has been relatively stable in recent years, even with more legitimate money in circulation — about $650 billion worldwide.

Uneven Penalties?

Unfortunately, if someone falls for an ersatz bill, they likely are stuck with the loss. There is no reimbursement, and knowingly trying to pass it off to somebody else is a federal crime.

Counterfeiting sentences can be as long as 20 years in prison, Stein said.

On the other hand, some who monitor product counterfeiting — which is policed piecemeal by numerous federal and local agencies — complain penalties frequently are lighter than they should be. Often, it's up to companies holding copyrights and trademarks to pursue fakers, they say.

"The penalties have been pretty light," Hopkins said. "There have been some jail sentences, but quite honestly those have been few and far between. … If they spend a year in prison, which is unusual, they would be making a very good salary [off the fake products] for that year in prison."

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