Undercover agents lured members of a smuggling ring to a bogus wedding in New Jersey last weekend; many of the alleged conspirators were arrested en route. The FBI claims the international ring has trafficked weapons, drugs, fake cigarettes, and more than $5 million in "Supernotes" to North America. What are Supernotes?
Counterfeit $100 bills of very high quality. Government agents say that most funny money falls into three categories. The first two are relatively easy to spot. Traditional fakes come from a process called offset lithography that produces phony dollars without the "raised ink" feel of genuine bills. Digital forgeries, made with high-tech scanners and printers, also lack the texture of the real thing. Supernotes are more deceptive. They're printed on cotton-fiber paper using the same expensive "intaglio" printing presses used by the U.S. government. An intaglio press creates tiny ridges on a piece of paper by forcing it into the ink-filled grooves of an engraved plate at very high pressure. That's what gives dollars—and Supernotes—their characteristic feel.
Government agents first discovered Supernotes in 1990. A very experienced overseas cash handler identified one as a forgery by the feel of the paper, even thought it was printed on an intaglio press. The fake was as good as any the Secret Service had ever seen—it even contained the right proportion of embedded red and blue fibers that the Treasury Department uses as a security feature. The first Supernote became known as Parent Note (PN) 14342. The term "Supernote"—also occasionally seen as "Superdollar" or "Superbill"—originated outside of the Secret Service. It refers to all high-quality counterfeits that can be linked back to PN-14342 with forensic evidence. (The Secret Service won't reveal how they link modern-day counterfeits to PN-14342.)
Supernote production requires uncommon equipment and skilled engineers. At first, investigators thought they originated in Lebanon. Another theory from the 1990s held that Iran produced them on equipment purchased by the Shah two decades earlier and then shipped the bills to Lebanon via Syria. The real source of the bills has not been found, but a member of the Congressional Research Service reported that the government of North Korea produces millions of dollars a year with intaglio presses. In the meantime, the government ordered an extensive redesign of U.S. currency in 1996. (Supernote versions of the new $100 bills have been discovered.)
The Treasury Department estimates that 60 percent of U.S. currency is held overseas, where Supernotes seem to be in wider circulation. In 1998, Russia's central bank estimated that $4 billion in Supernotes were floating around the country. And this past March, Supernotes turned up in Peru. Still, government statistics suggest that Supernotes make up only a small percentage of the counterfeit bills they find.
The Secret Service says the high-quality notes have detectable flaws and that information about those flaws has been shared with international banks. (They won't discuss the details in public.) If you want to check your money supply, you can find companies that sell devices to suss out the high-tech fakes.
Explainer thanks Michael Drewniak of the United States Attorney's Office in New Jersey and Eric Zahren of the United States Secret Service.