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What does the secret service have to do with counterfeit money?

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We’ve all seen those Secret Service agents in the black sunglasses and suits walking alongside U.S. presidents. But what do they have to do with counterfeiting?

The Secret Service is an old agency, dating back hundreds of years. Long ago, before the Secret Service protected presidents, they had a very different mission.

Secret origins

Today, we have a centralized banking system backed by the U.S. Government. But several  centuries ago, money was very different.

During the early 1800s, the U.S. Mint only issued silver and gold coins. They didn’t make paper money—but banks did. As banks sprang up across the nation, they all offered their own competing paper money called “banknotes”, which were only as secure as the bank.

If a bank went out of business, their banknotes became worthless overnight. You can probably imagine how confusing things got during this time, and Americans began to distrust the value of banknotes. 

To make things worse, criminals started creating their own banknotes and passing them off as the real thing. It got so bad that, by the 1860s, about one-third of all the currency people used was counterfeit. 

On July 5, 1865, Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch swore in a former detective named William P. Wood, who was known to be skilled at catching counterfeiters. And thus, the Secret Service was born. Since then, they’ve been responsible for investigating many counterfeiting cases. 

Let’s take a look at a few of their most famous ones.

The master impersonator 

Seen the 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can”? Then you’re probably familiar with Frank William Abagnale Jr., who wasn’t just good at counterfeiting fake checks, but also making people believe he was someone else.

Abagnale started early, famously impersonating a PanAm pilot when he was only 16 to fly for free. Over the years, Abagnale also impersonated a doctor and a lawyer, all without being caught while reaping the financial benefits. 

Eventually, Abagnale was arrested in France and went to jail there, before being deported to Sweden, where he did more time. The U.S. finally extradited him and sentenced him to 12 years. Abagnale only served 5 years before striking a deal with the government to help catch other counterfeiters.

Mister 880

Emerich Juettner, born in 1876, was a normal, law-abiding person for most of his life, living in New York with his wife. But, after she died, he fell on hard times in his early 60s and began counterfeiting $1 bills in 1938 (back then dollars were worth more than they are now). Using only a few counterfeit dollars per week and never in the same place twice, Juettner was able to get away with it for a while despite his counterfeit dollars being famously bad copies of the real thing. He even misspelled Washington’s name once as “Wahsington.”

The Secret Service eventually caught wind of his crimes and opened up “Case number 880”. But, because he was so careful, the agency failed to catch him for 10 years.

Eventually Juettner was caught, mostly by chance when children in his neighborhood found some of his fake dollars and gave them to their parents. Like “Catch Me If You Can”, Hollywood would eventually make Juettner famous with the 1950 film “Mister 880”.

How to spot fake money

These days, it’s a lot harder to make fake money that looks real. But counterfeiting hasn’t gone away, it’s just become more complex.

Here’s a few tips straight from the Secret Service on how to spot fake money.

  • Paper—Real paper money is threaded with tiny red and blue fibers, but you’ll probably need a magnifying glass to spot them. Counterfeiters might try to print little red and blue flecks on the paper, but if you look closely, you can see the difference.

  • Serial Numbers—The green serial numbers on the face-side of dollars are very neat and evenly spaced. If you see serial numbers that are even slightly off, then it’s not a real dollar.

  • Border—The borders of dollars are covered in complicated, unbroken patterns. If the border pattern looks blurry, then that dollar might not be legit.

Counterfeit money has become very close to the real thing, so it’s not always easy for most people to spot the difference. If you think you might have found a counterfeit dollar, the safest bet is contacting the Secret Service right away.

Keeping your money safe

Your money is your livelihood, so where you put it matters. That’s why keep your money secure at Varo with FDIC-insured banking. 

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is an independent agency of the U.S. government that insures your deposits and protects you from losing money if your FDIC-insured financial institution fails. Since the creation of the FDIC in 1933, not one penny of FDIC-insured deposits has been lost.

As a member of the FDIC, you can rest easy knowing your money with Varo is safe regardless of what happens in the economy, up to the FDIC insurance limits.

Unless otherwise noted above, opinions, advice, services, or other information or content expressed or contributed by customers or non-Varo contributors do not necessarily state or reflect those of Varo Bank, N.A. Member FDIC (“Bank”). Bank is not responsible for the accuracy of any content provided by author(s) or contributor(s) other than Varo.


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