Why plastic is quickly becoming a criminal’s worst enemy

Last updated: 18 October 2019

Counterfeit currencies are big business in Europe. The European Central bank seized almost half a million counterfeit euro banknotes in the second half of 2015. And in May 2016, it completely withdrew the €500 note over widespread links to terrorists, drug lords and tax evaders. But with organized criminals committed to printing fake money, authorities are having to go to ever more complex lengths to protect trust in currencies.

That’s why the science behind making bank notes is becoming dizzyingly complicated. With the accessibility of high quality printers, banking authorities have turned to holograms, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks which change colors depending on the angle of the light. Another ingenious innovation was the inclusion of the EURion Constellation, a pattern of symbols embedded in notes since 1996 that will be picked up by a photocopier and blocked from printing.

New bank note security features

The latest front in the war on counterfeit money lies in making tamper-proof notes. The latest €50 note made of pure cotton fiber paper has just come into circulation packed with security features.

The ECB knows that for any security measure to be effective, it has to be clearly apparent to the average citizen. That’s why their security features are centered around “feel, look and tilt”. You can feel the texture of the note with certain parts raised, see figures that appear when holding the note up to the light, and if you tilt the note some details will change color.

The new £5 note from the Bank of England follows a similar path.

Again there are transparent windows, parts which change color, holograms and sections that light up under UV light. It’s been warmly received since its introduction, but did draw criticism from vegans and certain religious groups for the trace (a fraction of a percent) amounts of tallow used in its production.

The material good

One effective weapon against criminals is also choosing to make the notes out of polymer (a type of plastic). It is now impossible to tamper with the note without leaving visible traces, and allows bank note makers to add features not available to paper notes.

But the innovations don’t end there with polymers. Polycarbonates, a type of thermoplastic polymer, is increasingly used for ID documents and offer a far greater level of security than anything we’ve seen before.

That’s because you can now combine many layers into a single block. New polycarbonate ID documents can contain:

  • tactile surface elements
  • changeable or multiple laser images
  • windows where you can also embed images (see the new £5 note above)
  • irreversible laser-engraved personalization
  • color portraits

Once complete, you cannot separate any layer, so you can’t change any data, or swap out an image. It further proves its worth by allowing authorities to be trained to recognize a genuine document within 5 seconds.

Defeating criminals

These breakthroughs in engineering are helping Europe stay more secure by reducing the possibilities of forgeries. Each country that has implemented polymer notes and polycarbonate ID documents has noted a stark reduction in fakes and forgeries.

What are your thoughts on polymer bank notes, and what do you think of the new polycarbonate IDs? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting to us @Gemalto.

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