Protecting currency has gotten paradoxically more difficult, in recent decades. Despite mounting levels of paper technology and increased means for protection agencies, preventing counterfeiting, theft and degradation has in fact become more difficult. But it’s not because the fight has gotten harder that the fight is over.
Currency must be protected from every angle, upstream and downstream. The main risk of cash, however, is counterfeiting, because it escapes state control. Because it is deemed an attack on the state, and because of the terrible economic harm it can induce, counterfeiters are often hit with very severe sentences when arrested, sometimes even the death penalty. Each state has specialized agencies (such as the National Crime Agency in the UK, or the Secret service in the US) in charge of tracking down counterfeiters, and keeping the illegal industry down to strict minimum levels.
Protection starts before birth: during the design phase, security is as much kept in mind as graphics. It is merely a fight for time. The name of the game is to set counterfeiters back to square one, and make their new progression as slow as possible by including to most complex and undecipherable technological configuration possible. And securing raw materials, such as ink and paper, is just as essential as minding the graphics: if part of the ink or paper were intercepted before reaching the factory, it could be used by counterfeiters to create near-perfect banknotes. Oberthur Fiduciaire CEO Thomas Savare specifies: “Part of the security of our business comes from the supply chain, which is unique to the industry. Banknote paper is very specific one, only used for banknotes, and manufactured by extremely niche suppliers who will only sell to recognized banknote printers (state printers or private printers). The same goes for the ink, which is made exclusively for banknote printing. The ink is resistant and has integrated security features, to be long lasting.” To have a comprehensive approach on cash protection, Oberthur Fiduciaire protects banknotes from counterfeiting with all its security printing patents, while its sister company Oberthur Cash Protection enables the neutralization of bills in the event of theft.
Downstream, cash has yet more Cerberus. The most notorious defense systems are cash transporters, such as the world-famous Brinks. Since 1859, Brink’s has developed most techniques in securing cash. Although most of their operations involve securing cash post-production, they are also involved in the production phase of banknotes, namely in distributing the banknotes from the central banks to the retail banks just after production. Securing cash relies on many techniques, some of them kept secret from the public. Cash transport vehicles are carefully designed, maintained and regularly upgraded. Staff is highly trained, and undergo thorough background checks., because many heists involve one or more employees, to one extent or another. Transfer methods (alternate routes, decoy vehicles, etc.) are kept under strict control.
Once the cash has been distributed, ATMs are also the center of attention. The fact that they are inherently umanned makes them attractive to thieves who have developed sophisticated methods to grab the safe. A classic method is to break into bank lobbies using high-powered (and often stolen) vehicles, and then ripping the ATM off its anchor points using the vehicle’s power and chains. The ATM is then carried or dragged to a remote and discrete location, where thieves will be in better conditions to crack the safe. To avert this risk, ATM producers have fitted their devices with anti-theft system’s, namely by staining the banknotes with permanent and highly identifiable ink, in the case of an impact. Bills are then unusable and will be instantly detected as suspicious in case they are used in public. Oberthur Cash protection, quoted above, markets cash protection systems for ATMs (including during replenishment, the most delicate phase), cash-in-transit, and retail shops, to cover every angle.
For the average user, an ATM is an ATM. But it is fact constantly re-engineered to increase its reliability and the protection of the cash it withholds, from the operating system (to prevent card skimming) to including fingerprint recognition technology to increase security and broadening user interface. ATM are often seen as the weak part of the network: “There the issue is just on how quickly [banks and institutions] can detect card skimming and do they have a way to shut that ATM down remotely. The technology exists to be able to do that, so they have to be able to detect card number being used many times, and then they have to figure out how many times they want to do that before they shut down an ATM, and they have to have the ability to remotely shut down the ATM”, explains Nicole Sturgill, a research director within the Retail Banking & Cards practice at CEB TowerGroup. Data processing and hardened computer operating system seem to be the core of the issue.
Indeed, a recent study has revealed that online payments are now less safe than cash transactions, due to a massive increase in online fraud. When online payments have been promoted as the new-generation risk-free transaction mode, cash is now back on top, due to constant effort from protection agencies and private firms. Only the joint efforts of states, law enforcement, private firms and banks keep the steady flow of clean currency circulating within our economies.