TAIPEI, Taiwan These days, almost every vendor at the Nanhuanlu market here has a laser penlight slung around his or her neck. The market’s administration distributed them free after a dramatic surge in the number of counterfeit notes received by vendors.
About 60 fake bills on average were detected per day in the market recently. During the first nine months of last year, the market’s 1,000-plus stalls lost an estimated 8 million Taiwan dollars (about $250,000 U.S.) to the skillfully scanned and laser-printed fakes.
“The vendors don’t make more than 1,000-2,000 Taiwan dollars a day. All it takes is one fake bill to lose a whole day of business,” says Chen Te-Tz’u, head of the Nanhuanlu stall-owners organization.
“It was like we were under attack from above,” says one meat vendor. “But it is better now. We are more careful and don’t get fooled that easily.”
Street vendors are not the only ones in Taiwan worried about the authenticity of the cash in their wallets. The counterfeit notes have been popping up everywhere, even in ATMs and over-the-counter bank transactions. The Taipei Bank recently reported that it had lost 1.6 million Taiwan dollars (about $50,000 U.S.) because of forged bills.
People on the street and pundits in the media are blaming the counterfeit crisis on the government’s inability to track down the forgers and on the new Taiwan dollar bills that the Central Bank began issuing in 2000.
The new 100- and 500-dollar bills, they point out, are very similar in size and color, which confuses matters when business is brisk. And while the new bills feature 14 hi-tech anti-counterfeit features, checking just five of these can take up to 30 seconds.
Other currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, have opted for significantly enlarged figureheads on bills as a more simple way to thwart counterfeits, but Taiwan’s new government for political reasons, according to its critics have exchanged the portrait of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek on the old 500 and 1,000 bills for pictures depicting sports and education.
And the size of the portrait of Sun Yat-sen, known as the father of modern China, on the old 100-dollar bills has been reduced on the new notes.
The government, understandably, has a diametrically opposed take on the recent spate of forgery. The reason so many counterfeit notes are being discovered, says Shen Chung-I, senior staff officer at the Taipei Police Economic Crime Unit, is not because the number of fake bills in circulation has increased, but because the new notes’ hi-tech safety features allow the fakes to be detected.
“The best counterfeiters cannot make a fake bill [that duplicates] even four of the safety features included in the new notes,” he said.
In any case, the recent revelations have put the island on high alert against counterfeit money. The government has announced the creation of a special unit to pursue the counterfeiters, offered rewards for information leading to arrests, promised harsher punishment of those found guilty, and is putting out posters and television commercials to educate the public about the 14 safety features on the new bills.
Banks and chain stores have stepped up staff training to weed out the counterfeits. Laser penlights and other detection equipment are selling like hotcakes, while homegrown methods for spotting forgeries are sprouting among the public.
One popular method involves sprinkling baby powder or corn starch over the lower right corner of the bill: If it is real, the denomination will stand out in relief; if it is fake, it won’t.
To date, police say they have handled 753 cases involving counterfeit money, an increase of more than 100 percent from a year earlier. But this is only the tip of the iceberg because most counterfeit bills are never reported; they are passed on to the next victim and continue to circulate.
In September, police made one of their biggest breaks yet, when they discovered a counterfeiting operation in Taipei County; four persons were arrested and about 6 million Taiwan dollars in fake money seized. But, as Chou Wen-ko, commander of Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, explained, tracking down the counterfeiters and their “factories” often nothing more than a computer, a scanner and laser printer is difficult.
“Mainly, we are forced to rely on tip-offs,” he said.
Commander Chou explains that the counterfeiters can either find a digital copy of the bill they want to duplicate on the Internet, or scan a real note. The fake bills are then printed on regular paper with a laser printer, or with more old-fashioned printing techniques. “The quality of the paper is very bad,” he said.
Evidently, though, the fakes are sometimes good enough to stump the experts. At a meeting of Kaohsiung’s city legislature, Lin Hsiang-kai, head of the city’s finance department, was handed six 1,000-Taiwan-dollar bills and asked to identify the fake note planted among them.
After a few embarrassing minutes, the baffled Mr. Lin excused himself by saying he needed baby powder to detect the fake bill.
As an article in the op-ed pages of the China Times recently pointed out: “When Mr. Peng Huai-nan, head of Taiwan’s Central Bank, personally must venture out into the city to teach the public how to tell a real note from a fake, you know the counterfeit money problem is serious.”