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Dirk Kaufmann / dbNovember 7, 2012

Beginning next year, the European Central Bank (ECB) will gradually replace current euro notes with new banknotes with improved safety features. However, counterfeiters are unlikely to be deterred for long.

euro notes in billfold Foto: Michael Gottschalk/dapd
Image: dapd

Counterfeit banknotes are in circulation all over Europe. They're being used every day, not just by criminals but also by innocent citizens, for ordinary transactions in shops or hotels. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has announced that the total value of counterfeit currency confiscated by police in 2011 amounted to about 6.5 million euros ($8.3 million).

However, this is a negligibly small figure compared to the entire sum of currency in circulation, according to Helmut Schäfer of the State Criminal Office (LKA) in the southern state of Bavaria. "The economic damage can certainly be disregarded," he told Deutsche Welle.

The deputy head of the currency forgery department at the Munich-based LKA says his colleagues are not so much guardians of currency stability, but that their duty is rather to ensure "security and ease in payment transactions." They chase counterfeiters so that citizens can be sure they always hold "real" money in their hands - banknotes that have an actual countervalue.

counterfeit euro bill .
The public should be more attentive, experts sayImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The next generation

The ECB plans to start rolling out new notes, beginning in 2013. The reason for this is not, however, that forged banknotes are causing inflation because a larger amount of money appears to be in circulation.

Schäfer explains that the central bank has developed a new generation of bills to "make life as hard as possible" for counterfeiters. Forgers require a certain amount of time to examine the new notes closely enough to forge them, and early forgeries are usually ease to recognize. From the Central Bank's point of view, a new cycle of bank notes is instigated once counterfeiters are practiced enough and able to produce "clean work". When this happens, existing notes are overhauled and altered.

Current euro notes have been in use for about ten years now. Many are torn or worn thin and need to be replaced anyway, so when rolling out new bills banks take the opportunity to revise the notes' security features.

The euro's soft spot

Cologne artist Hans-Jürgen Kuhl was sentenced to six years in prison for counterfeiting money. He no longer prints cash, but he's critical of the current euro banknotes. Take the ECB code on the front of the euro notes, for example. "It is a bit raised, but only a little bit. You can barely feel it. That's not much of a problem for a forger who knows what he's doing," he told Deutsche Welle.

Kuhl gained notoriety over the fake US dollar bills he produced in his private workshop, said to be the best forgeries of dollar bills ever made. After examining forged euro notes from eastern Europe that were considered to be decent fakes, Kuhl concludes that counterfeiters always come unstuck on the same features: the watermark and the hologram.

Hans-Jürgen Kuhl Foto: Horst Galuschka
Hans-Jürgen Kuhl: author, artist and expert counterfeiterImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Hans-Jürgen Kuhl, who is, after all, intimately familiar with the US Federal Reserve's handiwork, also dismisses the dollar. Dollar notes are elaborately made, he says, but "for an experienced counterfeiter, that isn't a problem, either."

bottle on beach filled with euro bills
The old notes will be gradually phased outImage: Fotolia/Robert Neumann

At the end of a banknote cycle, counterfeiters unfailingly catch up - and not just with the euro, says Helmut Schäfer of the Bavarian LKA. "There will never be an absolutely forgery-safe banknote," he comments.

Endless battle

Whether euros or dollars, the future for counterfeiters and crooks alike appears to lie in the internet. Online banking fraud is more lucrative, easier and less dangerous, says Helmut Schäfer. However, he adds that not everyone is more theoretically than practically inclined, so there "will always be counterfeiters, because these are people who are more adept with their hands."

Hans-Jürgen Kuhl agrees that the counterfeiting "profession" is not about to disappear - not because central banks are unable to print fool-proof bills, but because we tend to be unobservant.

Many people don't bother to count their change at the supermarket checkout. Busy cashiers, too, often don't bother to examine the notes they're handed. A counterfeiter's life is made easy by people being inattentive, says Kuhl. "As long as you can get people to accept 75 euro notes [which don't exist], the counterfeiters will be able to do as they please."