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What Does the Secret Service Have to Do With Counterfeit Money?

October 23, 2020

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The Secret Service is a very old agency, dating back hundreds of years.

We’ve all seen those guys in the black sunglasses and suits walking alongside U.S. presidents on TV—that’s the Secret Service.

Ok. But what do they have to do with counterfeiting?

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 a couple 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.

Banks sprang up across the nation, all offering their own paper money called ‘banknotes.’

Banks competed against each other, and these banknotes were only as secure as the bank.

If one went out of business, their banknotes became worthless overnight.

Things got pretty confusing during this time, and Americans began to distrust the value of banknotes. 

Then 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. 

Then 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 the Secret Service has been involved with many counterfeiting cases. 

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

Case 1: The Master Impersonator 

Frank William Abagnale Jr. specialized in fake checks. But he wasn’t just good at counterfeiting, he could also make 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 without being caught. 

Eventually Abagnale was arrested in France. He 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. But Abagnale only served 5 years before striking a deal with the government to help catch other counterfeiters.

If this story sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the 2012 film Catch Me if You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the famous con man.

Case 2: Mister 880

Emerich Juettner, born in 1876, was a regular, law-abiding person for most of his life.

He lived in New York with his wife. But after she died, he fell on hard times in his early 60s. 

Juettner began counterfeiting one-dollar bills in 1938. (Back then dollars were worth more than they are now.)

He only used a few counterfeit dollars a week and never in the same place twice.

Juettner’s counterfeit dollars were famously bad copies of the real thing. He even misspelled Washington’s name once as “Wahsington.”

The Secret Service 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.

Hollywood made Juettner famous with the 1950 comedy 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. 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 close, 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 people like you and me to tell. If you think you might have found a counterfeit dollar, the safest bet is contacting the Secret Service right away!

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Julian Dossett

Julian Dossett

Julian is a tech and finance writer, covering stories from artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency to personal loans and credit cards. His work has appeared at The Simple Dollar, Bankrate, and Blockchain Beach. As a former Cision editor, Julian worked across the table from many of the nation’s most trusted brands. He’s currently based in New Mexico.

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