“Superbill”: An Arresting Tale

June 16, 2010

The redesign of the U.S. one-hundred-dollar bill (AP article, Buffalo News , April 22, 2010) reminds me of the time when, holding a counterfeit C-note in my hands, I was surrounded by guys from the U.S. Secret Service. I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain: the encounter came about because of two invitations to Washington I had received.

The invitations were an outgrowth of my work in 1987 on the case of John Demjanjuk (now on trial in Germany for participating in the deaths of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland) and also because of my then-new book, Pen, Ink and Evidence . I was given V.I.P. tours of the document laboratories of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (conducted by Gideon Epstein) and the U.S. Secret Service (by Antonio “Tony” Cantu). (Both distinguished experts had been involved in the first Demjanjuk trial, in Israel.)

At one point in the fascinating Secret Service lab tour that introduced me to some of the high-tech tools of modern document examination, I was handed a U.S. banknote to see what I might think of it. Whipping out my Bausch & Lomb illuminated loupe, I examined the bill carefully. It looked fine, but I did not need to have been a former professional “mentalist” to see from the smirks on the examiners’ faces that the bill was surely bogus.

As I suspected, it was one of the infamous “Superbills” that were plaguing our country — counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bills of such quality, including blue and red security fibers in the paper, as to suggest production by a foreign government. “If I were you, I said, I would be worried.” They assured me they were!

Indeed, around this time I had discussed the matter by phone with Tony Cantu and also with Walter McCrone (the late, world-famous microanalyst who discovered artist’s pigments on the “Shroud” of Turin). The topic was not classified, and discussions were held with persons who might have some analytical technique to suggest. Walter, for example, was looking for any microscopic trace (a grain of pollen, say, among the fibers) that might point to a specific locale — “so that,” he once quipped to me, “we’ll know who to bomb.” As it happened, the smart money, so to speak, was on North Korea. According to informed sources, “it has been confirmed that North Korea passed off such bills in various countries and that the counterfeit bills circulate both within North Korea and around its border with China.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdollar .)

Counterfeiters will have to reach new heights of sophistication to copy the new version of the hundred-dollar bill — the one most frequently targeted by those beyond U.S. borders. The new bill features a remarkable blue security ribbon (with thousands of micro-lenses that produce dazzling effects), together with a color-changing image of an inkwell, and an appearing and disappearing Liberty Bell — a magic show on paper.