Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Mysterious Supernote Appears Around The World

Kansas City Star - The currency changer, brazenly plying his illegal trade in the Bank of China lobby, pulled out a thick wad of cash from around the world and carefully removed a bill.

The 2003 series U.S. $100 bill was a fake, but not just any fake. It was a “supernote,” a counterfeit so perfect it’s an international whodunit.

It had come from a North Korean businessman, the changer said, getting angry looks from his confederates. He stank of alcohol, but his story was plausible. The impoverished hermit nation sat just across the Yalu River from Dandong.

The Bush administration and members of Congress two years ago loudly accused North Korean leaders of being behind the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, but a 10-month McClatchy Newspapers investigation raises questions about those charges.

As the currency changer told a reporter, “The ones from Europe are much better.”



Whatever the origin of the bills, “it’s by far the most sophisticated counterfeiting operation in the world,” said James Kolbe, a former congressman from Arizona who oversaw funding for the Secret Service. “We are not certain as to how this is being done or how it’s happening.”

•The paper appears to be made from the same cotton and linen mix that distinguishes U.S. currency from others. It includes the watermarks visible from the other side of the bill, colored microfibers woven into the substrate of the banknote and an embedded strip, barely visible, that reads USA 100 and glows red under ultraviolet light.

•The bills include tiny microprint that appears as a line to the naked eye, but under magnification is actually lettering around the coat of Benjamin Franklin or hidden in the number 100 that reads either USA 100 or The United States of America.

•The same optically variable ink, or OVI, is used on the number 100 on the bottom right side of the bill. Exclusively made for, and sold to, the United States, this OVI ink gives the appearance of changing color when a banknote is viewed from different angles.

•At least 19 different versions have been printed, each corresponding to a tiny change in U.S. engraving plates — an odd thing for any counterfeiter to do. Also, they show practically invisible but intriguing additions.

•Stranger yet, the number of supernotes found indicates that whoever is printing them isn’t doing so in large quantities. Only $50 million worth of them have been seized since 1989, an average of $2.8 million per year and not even enough to pay for the sophisticated equipment and supplies needed to make them.

Industry experts such as Thomas Ferguson, former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said the supernotes are so good that they appear to have been made by someone with access to some government’s printing equipment.

Some experts think North Korea does not have the sophistication to make the bills; others suspect Iran and others speak of criminal gangs in Russia or China.

Klaus Bender, the author of Moneymakers: The Secret World of Banknote Printing, said the phony $100 bill is “not a fake anymore. It’s an illegal parallel print of a genuine note.” He claims that the supernotes are of such high quality and are updated so frequently that they could be produced only by a U.S. government agency such as the CIA.

As unsubstantiated as the allegation is, there is a precedent. An expert on the CIA, journalist Tim Weiner, has written how the agency tried to undermine the Soviet Union’s economy by counterfeiting its currency.