Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:19
As long as there are banknotes in circulation, there will be people who attempt to make forgeries of them. Indeed, some people have created whole businesses around the process of forging banknotes in order to make millions for themselves and their fellow criminals.
But while the modern techniques for forging banknotes are as advanced as the techniques employed to combat them, forging money is not a new crime. If you were to trace back the history of those instances where banknotes began to be forged, you would see that it dates back just as far as the existence of banknotes in the first place. It seems that as soon as the humble banknote first made its appearance around the world, there were criminals waiting to take a look and see how they could make some money for themselves – without having to earn the real thing.
Nowadays forgers – or counterfeiters as they are also sometimes known – might end up in prison serving a long sentence if they are caught for forging banknotes, but in times gone by the sentence was far more harsh. In the mid 1700s it was routine to be hung if you were caught with fake banknotes in England, especially if you were found to be making and distributing them.
England wasn't unique in the problems it had with forgeries however. Virtually every country in the world has had to deal with forgers and even today the criminals are determined to get past every new technique that is generated to make banknotes even harder to forge. You will sometimes see fake coins as well as fake banknotes, but these are not as common since the coins available in any currency tend to be of a very low denomination. It is the highest valued banknotes which draw the attention of the criminals as they have more to gain by creating copies of these than by trying to reproduce small coins.
It seems strange nowadays that the first banknotes were written by hand – thus opening up a glorious opportunity for the savvy forger to make some easy money by writing their own. It is perhaps ironic that we have the original forgers to thank for the start of the drive towards preventing forgeries which is still going strong today. If people were more honest and were not tempted to forge these notes, is it possible that we would still be passing around handwritten banknotes today? Certainly we wouldn't be seeing the same degree of protection ingrained within every single banknote we have on our person.
The methods used to detect forged banknotes may have been extremely rudimentary in the past but nowadays they are somewhat more sophisticated. The notes themselves have several techniques built into them which make them extremely hard to forge – although the most skilled of forgers will still manage to do it. The whole process may just take them longer than it did before.
As such many counterfeiters have become rather famous for their dubious skills. Although they are obviously breaking the law, they are quite often revered for their obvious talent and attention to detail – even though they have used that talent for the wrong purposes.
A classic example is Mary Butterworth, who went to trial accused of counterfeiting in 1723 in America. She was actually found innocent, although it is widely believed that she was guilty – even her own brother said so when he took the stand.
Other counterfeiters throughout history have not been so lucky. The British in particular were very stern on those convicted; apart from hanging people as mentioned previously, some unfortunate convicts ended up meeting the grisly death of being hung, drawn and quartered. Forgers should feel glad to meet nothing sterner than a prison sentence if they are caught in modern times.
You only need to look at a modern day banknote to see a number of the ways that forgery is combated. If you hold a banknote up to the light you should see a metallic strip running through it from top to bottom. This is embedded into the note, making it tricky for a counterfeiter to forge it successfully.
Even if they get past this obstacle however, they still have to successfully recreate such things as holograms, serial numbers, watermarks and many other clever features that are continually being improved and updated to ensure that the forgers have as tough a time as possible.
But perhaps the front line when it comes to detecting forgeries and preventing them from spreading further into the general population – apart from the police forces in various countries that is – is every single one of us.
If you have a forged banknote in your possession you will be breaking the law if you try and pass it on to someone else in payment for goods. You are not however entitled to exchange it for real currency either. If you are unlucky enough to be given one the best thing that you can do is to study it carefully to ensure you are not caught again in future. It also gives you the opportunity to see what a forged note can look like. Once you have had a close look take it to the police and tell them how you came by it.
With all the measures in place to stop criminals from forging official currency it may come as a surprise to know that certain governments have been guilty of forging currency in the past – especially in times of war. In such extreme circumstances it is occasionally done to devalue the currency of the country they are warring against.
Trying to put a stop to forgeries and the forgers who make them is an ongoing battle. While it is doubtful that they will ever stop entirely, what is certain is that governments will continue to find new ways of preventing forgeries – and the forgers will then find ways of getting round the new measures.