The government is scurrying to rescue Ben Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson from the clutches of increasingly wily counterfeiters.
The $100, $50 and $20 bills bearing the portraits of the famous three are headed for the most radical design change in 65 years, and Treasury officials said Tuesday that they hope to have a plan ready by year's end.
"With color copiers and other sophisticated printing technology at the disposal of counterfeiters, we're trying to stay ahead," spokeswoman Rebecca Lowenthal said.
Speculation abounds in numismatic circles that the new greenbacks will sport a second color and will have their portraits shoved off to the side to make room for a hard-to-duplicate watermark in the center. Such devices are already in use on the currency of several other countries.
Some also guess that the size of the new U.S. notes will grow.
Lowenthal dismisses such talk as "sheer speculation," saying: "No one at the Treasury Department has issued a proposal or issued a picture of a possible redesign. . . . There are thousands of possibilities being looked at in the mock-ups."
She did acknowledge that one possible move under study is a watermark, a translucent design impressed on paper during manufacture and visible when the paper is held to the light.
Considering the changes is a task force composed of top Treasury officials, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Secret Service, which investigates all counterfeiting cases.
New designs have been considered for a decade, but with the counterfeiting threat accelerating, activity went into high gear last year upon the arrival of the Clinton Administration.
The government took a couple of emergency steps three years ago, installing new security features on high-denomination bills, starting with the forgers' favorite, the $100 note.
A security thread was embedded in the paper to the left of the portrait, and a new microscopic line of type--appearing to be merely a decorative edge--was placed around the portrait.
Coin World, a collectors publication based in Sidney, Ohio, said in a recent issue that most, if not all, of the anti-counterfeit devices on bills "can or already have been duplicated, including the security thread."
But Lowenthal insisted the two new security features have been effective. "No one's currency is completely secure, but those two features have definitely made an impact," she said.
Robert J. Leuver, a former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, is quoted in Coin World saying that Treasury decided to go with a security thread because a paper supplier, Crane & Co. of Dalton, Mass., lacks the equipment required to make a registered watermark.
Crane, which has had an exclusive contract for currency paper with the government since 1879, told Coin World that it does have the equipment and is producing watermark currency paper for its international bank note customers. A spokesman was quoted as saying that the government decided not to use the watermark because it did not want to change the outward appearance of greenbacks.
Neither Leuver nor Crane officials could be reached for comment.
An indication of the growth in counterfeiting--and the increasing problem of enforcing laws against it--is suggested in figures provided by the Secret Service. The value of counterfeit money seized has declined from $110 million in 1988 to $24 million last year, and the estimated value of bogus money in circulation has gone up, from $11 million to $19 million.
It is unlikely existing currency would be recalled with the issuance of new bills, Lowenthal said. There are $207.5 billion worth of $100 bills in circulation worldwide, along with $5.5 billion in $1 bills, $841 million in $2 bills, $6.5 billion in $5s, $13.2 billion in $10s, $75 billion in $20s and $41 billion in $50s. That totals more than $349 billion.
One-dollar bills wear out in about 18 months, but the typical $100 bill or $50 bill stays in circulation nine years.