“The Perfectionist:” Counterfeiting $100 Bills

Wolman, David. “The Perfectionist.” WIRED. June 2012.

Artist and printmaker Hans-Jürgen Kuhl, counterfeiter.

Sells $250,000 in counterfeit money for 21,600 euros (later, $6.5 million for 533,000 euros). – “forgeries…generally sell at a steep discount because so much of the risk is borne by the buyer. As a consequence, forgery is profitable only on a large scale.”

The majority of counterfeiters, as one federal investigator told me, are meth heads who, after three nights without sleep, suddenly get the bright idea to scan a $20 bill, bleach a bunch of $5 bills, and print the image of the $20 on that same paper.

With his scrupulous craftsmanship, Kuhl placed himself among a rarefied class of counterfeiters who can produce truly high-quality fakes. They possess sophisticated knowledge about paper and dyes, and they have expertise in printing machinery and banknote security features.

The hardest features to forge with any level of sophistication are on the front of the note: the US Treasury seal, the large “100” denomination in the bottom-right corner, and “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” at the top.

He was found out when a sorter at a garbage and recycling center found a bag full of his offcut and other waste papers — which looked suspiciously like shredded US currency. An ensuing investigation wrapped up with a police sting (during which he made the “sales” that the above prices are quoted from.

Kuhl’s counterfeiting process:

  1. Select and tint paper — you can’t buy Crane & Co paper, so he had to find cotton-based paper of a similar weight elsewhere
  2. Mimic security features — he used silk screen to apply features like watermarks, security strip, and the red and blue fibers that are woven in to genuine notes
  3. Photoshop — he manipulated a high-res scan of a $100 bill, removing certain details and separating out into different printing layers
  4. Create digital printing files — with each layer arrayed into a gridded sheet of currency
  5. Make the plates — he would print the grids onto film, then uses them + UV light to  create the lithographic plates
  6. Print the bills — Kuhl had an offset printer, a Heidelberg GTO 52
  7. Fake the UV security strip — he would use an additional offset plate plus UV-sensitive ink to fake this strip
  8. Simulate the texture of real cash — “To print the scratchy color-shifting ‘100,’ Kuhl mixed green glitter with color-shifting pigment and applied it using a silk-screen press.”
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