“On April 14, 1865, Abe Lincoln founded the Secret Service to combat counterfeiting. That was also the last day of his life.”
It’s not yet the last day of October, but it’s already Halloween at Excalibur Nightclub, with rats and corpses in every corner and toilet-paper ghosts suspended from the ceiling. The Secret Service agent at the podium isn’t wearing a costume, but he looks like he is. Agent Russ has probably never done a PowerPoint presentation before, and he stands too close to the screen with an oversized badge projected onto his chest and “United States” emblazoned across his jugular like a bad prison tattoo.
The Secret Service is in town holding a seminar because $10,000 worth of fake hundreds have been spread around Division and Rush over the last few weeks. Apparently, this has gotten out of hand as bars have become reliant on what’s known as the pen test. The bartender strikes a special pen across a bill. If the bill is real, nothing happens. If the bill is fake, the ink turns purple, or at least it’s supposed to. The ink reacts to starch content in paper. U.S. currency, which is not actually paper, has no starch content. There are two ways that these pens can be bypassed. The cheap way is to coat a fake with nail polish or hair spray, which will keep the ink from touching the paper. It’s not foolproof, though, and the pros have found a better way. They bleach the new fives and print hundreds over them. You can’t reproduce the intaglio printing process or color-shifting inks, but the bills have security threads and react to ultraviolet light. Their only tell, in a dark bar, is the watermark.
On a crisp hundred, Ben Franklin’s lumpy face emerges like a ghost. On one fake bill, he is hand drawn and looks more like Mr. Bubble, and on another it’s Honest Abe.
“These aren’t your high-school kids trying to make a fifty on their computers,” says Russ. “These are counterfeiters making art, trying to leave their mark on the world.” (ELR)