Supernotes are a certain kind of counterfeit US hundred-dollar bill. They are virtually indistinguishable from a legitimate C-note, which is not at all a good thing. Most batches are not even discovered to be counterfeit until they make it to a Federal Reserve Bank, which has the most advanced screening technology.

As with other new species of counterfeits arriving in the offices of the Secret Service, the bill was given its own flat-file drawer and christened with a sequential number: C-14342. In time, its remarkable quality earned it its more informal honorific: the supernote.

The Treasury Department says that the ultimate source of these notes is North Korea, which is probably printing them with an intaglio press similar to the ones used by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing [note — they seem to have the hardest time counterfeiting the paper, and most Supernotes not discovered  via machine readings have been turned by people who said they “felt wrong”]. Counterfeiting US dollars is an efficient way for the North Korean government to print the money it needs to fund its programs without hyperinflating its own currency.

 The high quality of these notes and not the quantity circulated is the primary concern for the US secret service. the supernote primarily circulates outside the US. The supernote is unlikely to adversely impact the US economy based on the comparatively low volume of notes passed.

[That’s from the testimony of Michael Merit, Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Investigations of the US Secret Service — from a hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security. April 25 2006.]

“They would certainly fool me,” said Glaser, who points out that the “defects” of the supernote are arguably improvements. He recalled looking at the back of a $100 supernote under a magnifying glass and noticing that the hands on the clock tower of Independence Hall were sharper on the counterfeit than on the genuine.

The population of the United States and the large amount of banknotes in circulation means that even a large counterfeiting operation doesn’t have very much by  way of repercussions — the currency itself remains stable and trusted. For a country with a smaller population, like Canada, a large counterfeiting effort can be very very problematic to the stability of the currency.

The Secret Service has drawn up what looks like a genealogical chart of these and related bills, which agents showed me during a visit to their Washington offices this spring. The chart displays the many members of the supernote clan: C-21555, for example, the first “big head” $100 (so-called because of the design of the most recent U.S. bills), which was initially identified in London; and C-22500, a more recent arrival that appeared in Macao. The family, which now has 19 members and remains unparalleled even in the world of high-quality counterfeits, also includes two $50 notes: C-20000, a small-head supernote that appeared in Athens, in June 1995; and C-22160, a big-head version, first sighted in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The Supernote is what forced the 1996 redesigns of US paper currency (big-head notes). They had to be made more high-tech, more complicated, in order to make it harder for this kind of institutionally successful counterfeiting to occur. The first big-head counterfeits began appearing around 1998.

If you’re talking about value, Supernotes are money.

Supernotes are just US dollars not made by the US government.

They’re the same as US banknotes. They’re duplicates in a way that most counterfeits are not — counterfeiting is not actually about duplicating or reproducing so much as it is about passing something off as legitimate.

If, as Wolman says,

Money is an arms race between authorities and counterfeiters.

then a company like Crane stands to really benefit from the increased pressure that such high-quality counterfeits present. For example, the full redesign of US paper currency must have been a great opportunity for the company.

But with every new wave of technology comes a new wave of fakes. For example, the much-heralded MOTION technology that makes the little liberty bells and 100s on the newest $100 bill move back and forth? The technical name for it is microarray — a lot of little lenses. A less complicated technology called lens array is used in holographic cards and other less-important items, and could potentially be used to imitated the microarray’s motion.

There’s a very fine line between looking out for counterfeits, educating the public about how to do this, and seeming afraid or threatened by them and thus giving the public a reason to distrust authentic currency and thus destabilize its value.


Mihm, Stephen. “No Ordinary Counterfeit.” New York Times. 23 September 2006.

Wolman, David. The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers – and the Coming Cashless Society. (Boston: Da Capo, 2012).

3 Responses to “Supernotes”
  1. dem says:

    I wonder if we can include the fact of the 1996 “big head” redesigns of U.S. currency, and the soon-to-follow big-head Supernote counterfeits, as backstory in the show in E.1 or E.2? E.1 probably. Would lay the groundwork for all of the expansion into security technology that follows.

    Plus that bit about N. Korea making the supernotes so they can fund their programs without hyperinflating their own currency — it sounds like a plot point in a Bond movie, how glorious that it’s for real!

    Cate, low priority: can you find a release schedule for the Big Heads? Which came out what year etc? And if there’s any more info on when the Supernotes for them started being found (doubtful, but worth a poke about) that would be cool.

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  1. […] Along the way, we grappled with the finer points of currency paper security features, counterfeit Supernotes, paper and technology monopolies, and the surprising relationship between the Secret Service and […]

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