Are You Ready For Beige Greenbacks?

CAROUSEL - An Iraqi man holds a firework to celebrate in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 29, 2009. U.S. troops will be out of Iraqi cities by tomorrow Tuesday June 30 in the first step toward winding down the American war effort by the end of 2011. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed
When you look at your greenbacks in the future, you might see red. Or blue, or any number of colors as the nation's money makers mull another makeover to thwart high-tech counterfeiters.

Perhaps a spot on the paper bills might even look 3-D.

Those are some of the ideas being floated as the government works on designing new bills that will be harder to knock off. It is a continuing challenge in a world where large quantities of counterfeit notes can be produced easily and quickly using increasingly sophisticated computer technology.

New bills are expected to begin debuting in mid- to late 2003. A final design, which Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill must approve, is not expected to be publicly released until next year.

The last currency makeover started in 1996 and was the biggest change in the dollar's design in 67 years, with a number of high-tech features added.

The most noticeable change, however, was that portraits were made bigger and moved slightly off center. As a result, a number of nicknames cropped up for the notes, including Monopoly Money.

One change being considered now is the addition of "subtle color" to the bills, says the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which makes the nation's paper money. The goal would be to use color in such a way that would make it harder to make bogus bills.

Green and black ink is now used on neutral-colored paper. Experts say color could be added in the neutral areas, in other specific spots or be used to tint the entire note. Colors could vary by denomination.

The government is not offering details. But the bureau says that whatever changes are made, "the public can rest assured that notes will maintain their distinct American look and feel."

The size of the notes will not change and the same faces will appear on the same bills.

The United States has had colorful money before, but that was years ago.

"Some of the bills of the late 1860s are so colorful because of the combination of the inks and special hued paper that collectors refer to them as Rainbow Notes," said Lyn Knight, whose business auctions rare U.S. and foreign bills to collectors.

From 1929 until 1963, five different colors of ink appeared on the Treasury Department seals printed on the fronts of circulating bills, Knight said.

"I think our currency right now is the most boring in the world," he said. "Adding color would make it more interesting."

Besides color, another change may include using more distinct color-shifting ink. In the last redesign, color-shifting ink that looks green when viewed straight on but black at an angle was used in a spot on some notes.

Another idea: adding what can look like a sophisticated 3-D hologram to new notes, a notion promoted by Leonhard Kurz and Co., a major supplier of technology for optically variable devices. They are state-of-the-art foils, which incorporate metallic reflection and diffraction.

Some of the anti-counterfeiting features included in the last redesign are likely to be retained, the bureau says. They include watermarks that are visible when held up to a light; embedded security threads that glow a color when exposed to an ultraviolet light; and very tiny images, visible with a magnifying glass, known as microprinting.

Benjamin Franklin, whose face is on the $100 bill, got a makeover in 1996. He was followed by Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill in 1997 and Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill the following year. New $5s and $10s came out in 2000.

As with the last makeover, there are no plans to give George Washington, whose visage is on the most common bill — the dollar — a high-tech facelift because the note is not attractive to counterfeiters, experts say. The same goes for the obscure $2 bill.

When new bills are issued, the old bills continue to be accepted and recirculated until they wear out. The government also plans to work closely again with industry to make sure new bills can be read by ATMs and vending machines, including those used for public transportation.

Over the years, counterfeiters have graduated from offset printing to sophisticated color copiers, computer scanners, color ink jet printers and publishing-grade software — technologies readily available.

In the 2001 fiscal year, $47.5 million in counterfeit bills got into circulation in the United States, according to the Secret Service, which was created in 1865 to stem the rampant counterfeiting taking place at the time. Of that amount, $18.4 million — or 39 percent — were phony computer-generated notes.

While that is down from the 47 percent of computer-generated counterfeit bills in 2000, ytazamain a large concern.

"Counterfeiting is a problem. There's not only a loss to the victim, but it is also used to underwrite violent crimes," said Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of counterfeited bills in the United States were from Colombia

The $20 bill is the most counterfeited note in the United States, while the $100 bill is the most knocked-off bill outside the country.

The last money makeover has been proving effective in combating counterfeiters, Mackin said.

"With those notes we are catching more counterfeiters at the first pass — the first bank teller or retail clerk," he said. "You want to get to the counterfeit notes before they change too many hands."

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for