Decades ago, counterfeiting currency was the domain of artisans who relied on expensive offset presses and carefully hand-crafted watermarks.
But today, most counterfeit U.S. bills are made by people who equip themselves with low-cost tools, such as one woman, Tarshema Brice, who authorities said produced thousands of dollars in fake currency with a Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) inkjet printer, a toothbrush and a hairdryer.
About 60 percent of the $88.7 billion of fake money produced in the last fiscal year was printed on inkjet or laser printers, up from less than 1 percent of counterfeit bills in 1995, Bloomberg reports, citing the Secret Service. Brice's scam illustrates how criminals are now turning to low-cost household objects to print fake money: She reportedly started with real $5 bills, used a toothbrush and "Purple Power" cleaner to scrub the ink off, and dried the paper with hairdryer, allowing her to reprint the bills in $50 and $100 denominations using an HP printer.
"Back in the day, there was a significant outlay of funds to produce a counterfeit note," Ed Lowery, the agent in charge of the Secret Service's criminal division, told Bloomberg. Now, he said, "Depending on the technology you are using, you could just print up some to go out on a Friday night."
The attorney for Brice, who pleaded guilty to counterfeiting last month, said she "was raising six children on her own with modest income and was filling the gaps by making counterfeit money," Bloomberg reports.
Brice wasn't the first to use these techniques. Last year, the Secret Service and Florida investigators uncovered an operation that printed at least $100,000 in fake money. The alleged criminals' tools of choice? A degreaser solution to wipe the print from $1 bills, which were then printed as $100 bills with a laser printer and customized design software, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
For its part, HP told Bloomberg that it works with law enforcement and central banks to reduce the risk of counterfeiting. Some printers, for instance, come with software that can detect when money is being copied, and then blocks the action.
The U.S. Treasury has redesigned its bills to make them harder to fake, with the new $100 bill introduced last fall with security features such as a blue 3-D security ribbon to the right of Benjamin Franklin. The Secret Service also has tips about how to spot counterfeit bills (hint: fake bills often have "lifeless or flat" portraits).