American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Funny Money: The Fight of the US Secret Service Against Counterfeit Money

Kings of Counterfeiting

Within the annals of the US Secret Service, certain individuals stand out for their audacity, the quality of their counterfeit money or simply their ability to avoid capture. In most of the cases, the agents remain anonymous individuals as they chase the bad guy, who in turn is often portrayed by the press or writers with some admiration. Thus in the public eye even hardened criminals turn into loveable rogues.

Over the last 150 years, the Secret Service has been involved in thousands of cases, most of which are now part of the vast Secret Service archives. Although we often look at a single person as the “king of counterfeiting,” there is usually a team of people involved. In the accounts of the late 19th century, the emphasis is often on the skilled engraver, who at times works for the bank, whose notes he forges after work. Then there are the people, often women, who pass the counterfeit notes. Here we encounter highly confident, well-dressed individuals, who display such aplomb and respectability that the shopkeepers or clerks do not even look at the notes which they are handed. Fundamentally, the counterfeit notes are as good or as bad as the “passers.”

All counterfeiters have in common that they want to defraud the government and the public. However, as their work requires great skill, counterfeiters often appear to be proud of good work. The fact that it has at times fooled even government official attests for the quality of some counterfeit work. Another common factor in many counterfeiting cases is greed. Once a counterfeiter is capable of producing good products, it is hard to resist the temptation to produce lots of bad money and profit from such illegal activities.