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Slate's Explainer: Counterfeit U.S. 'Super Notes'

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Earlier this week, we heard the amazing story of an undercover FBI sting that could have come straight out of Hollywood. The six-year investigation ended Sunday when FBI agents posing as an engaged couple lured eight alleged Chinese organized crime leaders to New Jersey for a fake wedding. The suspects are charged with cigarette smuggling and with counterfeiting US currency. Here's Assistant Attorney General John Richter speaking at a news conference.

Mr. JOHN RICHTER (Assistant US Attorney General): We seized more than $4 million of highly deceptive currency, what some call loosely super notes. It's the largest seizure of its kind.

CHADWICK: And that got the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering: What exactly is a super note? Here with the answer is Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): Super notes are counterfeit hundred-dollar bills of very high quality. Government agents say that most funny money falls into three categories. The first two, made using offset lithography or high-tech digital scanners and printers, are relatively easy to spot because they lack the raised ink feel of genuine bills. Super notes are more deceptive. They're printed on cotton fiber paper using the same expensive intaglio printing presses used by the government. An intaglio press creates tiny ridges on a piece of paper by forcing it into the ink-filled groves of an engraved plate at very high pressure. That's what gives dollars and super notes their characteristic feel.

Government agents first discovered super notes in 1990. A very experienced overseas cash handler identified one as a forgery by the feel of the paper, even though 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 super note became known as Parent Note, or (PN), 14342. The term super note originated outside 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.

Super note 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 US government ordered an extensive redesign of US currency in 1996, but, yes, super note versions of the new hundred-dollar bills have been discovered, as well.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Andy.

Andy Bowers is senior editor at the online magazine Slate, and that Explainer was actually compiled by Daniel Engber.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andy Bowers
Andy Bowers oversees Slate's collaboration with NPR?s daytime news magazine, Day to Day. He helps produce the work of Slate's writers for radio, and can also be heard on the program.
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