The Art of Making Money
June 4, 2010 8:25 AM   Subscribe

For almost 20 years, Art Williams, Jr. was one of the country's eminent currency counterfeiters. His greatest achievement: counterfeiting the new (at the time) $100 bill (PDF link).

The new $100 bill supposedly had the most advanced security features ever, but Williams was able to defeat most of them.

Art's son, Art III, seems to have followed in his dad's footsteps.
posted by reenum (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
The art of counterfeiting can be traced back to the year 700 B.C., while during the U.S. Civil War, up to half of all American bills were counterfeit.

This sentence makes my brain wiggle.
posted by doteatop at 8:30 AM on June 4, 2010 [12 favorites]


You know, the United Spartan Civil War. Because of all that counterfeiting, Lycurgus banned ownership of any gold or silver, and to allow only money made of iron. The iron coins of Sparta were dipped in vinegar to make the metal brittle and worthless. Merchants laughed at this money because it had no intrinsic value, so imports of luxuries stopped. Robbery and bribery vanished from Sparta instantly.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


For those of you who haven't seen it, The Counterfeiters is the story of the largest counterfeiting operation in history, which was set up by the Nazis.
posted by gman at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was a pretty interesting story, but I got bored after page 2 or 3. Fascinating stuff though.
posted by antifuse at 9:00 AM on June 4, 2010


*fires up color laserjet printer*
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:01 AM on June 4, 2010


This was a pretty interesting story, but I got bored after page 2 or 3. Fascinating stuff though.

So what I'm reading here, antifuse, is that it was so interesting and fascinating that it was boring?

I myself found it so boring that I was fascinated and read the whole thing, and then went on to look up articles about the supernotes that North Korea is making.
posted by komara at 9:06 AM on June 4, 2010


Ha! I read the whole Rolling Stone article, and it was great. The mind-boggling thing of this MeFi post is that ol' Trip here is the third generation of Williams trying his hand at the counterfeiting business. You'd think after your dad and granddad both went to prison for counterfeiting that maybe you'd try something different. That maybe the Secret Service had an eye on you. But apparently not.
posted by Nelson at 9:18 AM on June 4, 2010


after perusing the slide show on the popsci site i have to wonder how much it's going to cost to print a new $100. ingrained microlenses? wow. that can't be really cheap, right?

(and, i'm going to miss collecting those plastic '100' ribbons from any big bill that passes my way...)
posted by artof.mulata at 9:47 AM on June 4, 2010


With a name like Art Williiam (Bill?), what's a feller supposed to?
posted by dirtdirt at 10:05 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I use to work in a London pub that was a kind of publican's pub--the managers of surrounding pubs would come and hang out and drink in our pub durring slow afternoons. One day I'm leaning on the bar talking to one of the regulars, a manager of an upscale wine bar down the road, and his phone rings. It's a call from another publican who says, watch out, there is a old guy walking around the neighborhood trying to pass off a fake £50 note.

We brush off the warning, but no less then ten minutes later someone walks into the bar, orders a brandy, and hands me a 50 quid note. I know something is off with the note as soon as I touch it, the paper just feels funny to me, and the color is a little off. I don't even try to hold it under the black light, I just hand it back to the man and say, sorry mate, you have something smaller?

He says, yes, but it's at his hotel, just around the corner, save the drink and he'll be back. As soon as he's out the door my friend the manager pulls his phone out and calls his own bar, to tell them not to take any big bills for the rest of the day.

Of course the counterfeiter never came back to claim his drink, but hey, once the brandy is in the class then somebody has to drink it, and I can vouch that it was genuine brandy.
posted by Hoenikker at 10:27 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


This was a pretty interesting story, but I got bored after page 2 or 3.

There's a chart on page 4 of the PDF that shows what he did.

It does seem like the new security features did their job, in that he had to individually address each of them with a different technique. And some of them were faked to be just good enough to pass, like the microprinting.
posted by smackfu at 10:43 AM on June 4, 2010


Smaller bills is smarter policy if you want to discourage laundering crimes.
posted by Brian B. at 11:08 AM on June 4, 2010


So what I'm reading here, antifuse, is that it was so interesting and fascinating that it was boring?

It was fascinating that managed to almost create a superbill, without hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Eight pages on his story started falling into tl;dr territory for me though (I did, however, skim to the infographic on how he did it). And something about the writing in that article just tweaked me a bit too.
posted by antifuse at 11:41 AM on June 4, 2010


Smaller bills is smarter policy if you want to discourage laundering crimes.

Not really true. The most commonly counterfeited Swedish banknote is the 20 kronor "Selma" which is the lowest denomination in paper.

It seems shop owners look carefully at high denomination notes, but don't think anyone would bother to counterfeit Selma so they don't give it the same careful look which is the key to passing it off.
posted by three blind mice at 1:51 PM on June 4, 2010


My impression (not very recently verified) is that American bills in America are checked pretty carefully, but that the huge amount of American cash circulating globally-- and constituting the de facto medium of exchange in and between quite a few countries-- is not.

If so, you could make a lot of money and a lot of enemies with a cheap and reliable tester.
posted by jamjam at 2:24 PM on June 4, 2010


I don't know. Try to pass a nicked or ripped US $20 in many countries, and it will be flat-out rejected, which would NEVER happen in the US.
posted by smackfu at 2:29 PM on June 4, 2010


I wonder why they haven't yet encoded digital signatures on bills that retailers could verify. Since the recipient is already on the hook to verify the authenticity of the bill, this would provide them a real tool to do so. If someone made copies of a legit bill's signed certificate, it wouldn't be long before the system noticed that a certain bill kept showing up in different places and it could be flagged.
posted by jewzilla at 4:15 PM on June 4, 2010


Jewzilla, you remind me that one of Ferdinand Marcos' smaller peccadilloes was said to have been printing three bills for every serial number.
posted by jamjam at 5:07 PM on June 4, 2010


*fires up color laserjet printer*

Good luck with that...

That said, I've seen a counterfeit $20 that was made on a laser and it was surprisingly good. (I forget where it was, but it was at some kind of "how to spot counterfeits" seminar thing) This was before the marking pens and security threads. Because color laser printers at the time used a fairly heavy toner, the bill felt quite real. Just oddly shiny. The only way to prove it was fake was that the red fibers in the paper had laser-scanner marks.

I wonder why they haven't yet encoded digital signatures on bills that retailers could verify. Since the recipient is already on the hook to verify the authenticity of the bill, this would provide them a real tool to do so. If someone made copies of a legit bill's signed certificate, it wouldn't be long before the system noticed that a certain bill kept showing up in different places and it could be flagged.

This is why retailers love credit cards, even for all their charge-back problems. You can't counterfeit electronic money nearly as easily.
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on June 5, 2010


Two idiots in Puerto Rico (it's ok; I'm from there) decide they're going into the counterfeiting business. The one gets right to it, since he's the artist and the other one paces the floor, waiting for results. A few days later, the artist emerges with a pile of bills. The other guy looks at them, smacks his forehead and yells at the other idiot, 'You idiot! These are eighteen dollar bills! No one will accept these! We're screwed! How are we gonna get rid of them?". The artist idiot scratches his head, thinking, then declares, "I've got it! Let's go up into the interior of the island, where people are a little out of touch with the modern world. We can say these are new issues!". The other idiot agrees and they toss the pile of bills in their car and take off.
They stop at the first colmado(a little like a convenience store) they see and go in. They make a show of looking around for something they eventually can't find and ask the proprietor if he can make change. He agrees and takes the bill they hand him and studies it carefully. He looks at it for so long they begin to worry he's on to them. Finally, he says to the two idiots, "No problem; how do you want your change? Three sixes or two nines?".
posted by girdyerloins at 11:31 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This reminsd me of the Brazilian movie O Homem Que Copiava (The Man Who Copied). Great movie about a guy who counterfeits money in order to have an excuse to meet the girl of his dreams.

Also, at all the jobs I've worked at, only $50 and above gets checked. If lower denominations were printed on decent paper and passably authentic, it would probably pass.
posted by Xere at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2010


I've noticed a couple of photocopies of fake tens and twenties posted at local mini-marts and gas stations lately, with notices like "we're on to you!" written on them. Maybe counterfeiting small bills is getting more popular?
posted by telstar at 1:43 AM on June 7, 2010


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