What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell Us

A history of counterfeiting U.S. money

Marketplace Staff Feb 12, 2011

A history of counterfeiting U.S. money

Marketplace Staff Feb 12, 2011


JEREMY HOBSON: Well in addition to guarding the President of the United States the Secret Service is tasked with safeguarding the nation’s financial infrastructure. In other words, cracking down on currency counterfeiters. Just this week authorities nabbed a guy trying to use a fake $50 bill in West Virginia. And two people with more than $13,000 in counterfeit money in Maryland.

This is nothing new, of course. Counterfeiting was going on in this country even before it was a country. Ben Tarnoff has just written a book on the history of counterfeiting in the U.S. called “Moneymakers.” He joins us now, good morning.

BEN TARNOFF: Good morning, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So you tell a lot of great tales of counterfeiting that was going on back in the early days of the republic. Just give us an idea of the kind of thing that was happening and who was doing it.

TARNOFF: So on the one hand, you have to be a very talented artist to be a good counterfeiter — you would have to engrave an entire piece of copper plate and then ink that plate and run it through a printing press. On the other hand, you have to be aggressively entrepreneurial. You have to think about which communities are best suited to the production and distribution of counterfeit notes.

HOBSON: And you can’t just do it in the middle of the city.

TARNOFF: Well, you couldn’t. The first counterfeiter profiled in my book is named Owen Sullivan, and he gets into quite a lot of trouble in 1749. He’s having a drunken argument with his wife. It’s a hot day in Boston, and at one point, his wife yells, ‘You 40,000-pound moneymaker.” ‘Moneymaker’ is the colonial word for counterfeiter. So the neighbors overhear this and call the authorities. So you’re right, cities at that period were actually very difficult to be a good counterfeiter.

HOBSON: All that sort of brings up a bigger point, I guess, which is the value of money is only worth the paper it’s printed on, when it comes down to it. Why do you think we have so much faith today in our dollar bills?

TARNOFF: The dollar bill now that we’ve completely unhinged from the gold standard relies entirely on our confidence in it, and then the confidence of the credit of the United States. And the real truth about confidence, though, is that it’s always sustained American currency, even in the 18th and 19th century, because often the promise to redeem a piece of paper for gold and silver was imaginary.

HOBSON: I have to admit I have never seen a counterfeit dollar in circulation, at least that I knew of. Have you?

TARNOFF: I have, but there’s a reason for that. Because counterfeit notes actually a small number of total in circulation. It’s about about one per 10,000 notes, both at home and abroad.

HOBSON: Ben Tarnoff, author of “Moneymakers,” a new book about the history of counterfeiting in America. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

TARNOFF: Thanks for having me.

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.