for National Geographic News
The U.S. Secret Service is best known for guarding the President of the United States. Most of us have seen the agents in dark glasses shadowing the President, scanning the surroundings for any possible threats.
But few people may know that the U.S. Secret Service was created to combat counterfeiting. And it may come as a surprise that half of the Secret Service staff today is dedicated to investigating counterfeit currency.
The job, naturally, has changed. When the agency was established after the Civil War, in 1865, up to half of the U.S. money supply was fake. The Secret Service was charged with restoring public confidence in the currency.
Today only about $200 million U.S. dollarsout of the $500 billion dollars in circulationis believed to be counterfeit. But the counterfeit currency today is far more difficult to trace than in the past.
Foreign crime syndicates print much of the fake currency abroad, using traditional offset printing methods, everyday technology, like scanners and color copiers, has enabled virtually anyone at home to become a counterfeiter.
"We have seen a reinvention of how a counterfeit is made," said Brian L. Stafford, who was the director of the U.S. Secret Service from 1999 to 2003. "Before, you needed skilled engravers and printers to make a passable counterfeit. Today we have children doing it."
Along with New York and Miami, Los Angeles is a hot spot for counterfeit activity. On average, $100,000 in fake currency is detected every week in the Los Angeles area.
The Secret Service recently busted a counterfeit ring in North Hollywood in which $700,000 was passed to the public. The mastermind, a young man with computer graphics expertise, was using Mac laptops to print the counterfeits.
"This gentleman was about as good as they come in the reproduction of the new series of notes," said Brian Hunter, an assistant to the special agent in charge at the U.S. Secret Service office in Los Angeles. Hunter is also the head of the counterfeit unit in the L.A. bureau.
The North Hollywood operation was destroyed only after the investigators caught a lucky break. When local police pulled a car over for a traffic violation, they found an envelope on the front seat containing freshly printed $20 bills. There was still green ink on the envelope.