Counterfeit bills have a long history in Canada

If the Bank of Canada gets its way, the nation's most notorious counterfeiters will be out of business by March 2013.

That's when the Bank of Canada plans to complete the unveiling of its brand new series of dollar bills featuring never-before-seen anti-counterfeiting features.

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Although the same size and colour as the current bills in circulation, the Bank of Canada's new polymer notes are printed on a smooth and durable film and include a string of innovative security features, such as raised ink, transparent text and metallic portraits that promise to safeguard against counterfeiting.

To be sure, these sci-fi features are cool. But whether they'll put an end once and for all to counterfeiting is questionable given its long and storied history.

Just ask Debra Roháč, exhibition and program planner at Bank of Canada's Currency Museum in Ottawa. Here, visitors can participate in an audio tour called, ‘Penalties of Counterfeiting,' which tells stories about a wide variety of counterfeits, ranging from cocoa beans filled with sand to hand-engraved counterfeit bank notes. Listeners can learn about some of the most notorious counterfeiters in Canada and the steps the country has taken to thwart such criminal activity.

"We noticed our teenage audience enjoyed the macabre stories involving the punishments for counterfeiting, so we thought other visitors may enjoy them as well," says Roháč, on how the audio tour came about. "Since the Bank of Canada wants to instill confidence in bank notes, the museum wanted to help this effort by letting visitors know that: a) counterfeiting has been around as long as money been around, b) counterfeiting has always been considered a serious crime, and c) counterfeiters are caught and punished."

One of Canada's most notorious counterfeiters is Edwin Johnson. A master engraver, Johnson created hand-engraved plates to print counterfeit notes, many of which were so true-to-life that the banks had difficulty recognizing them from their own legitimate notes.

"In total, Mr. Johnson and his family produced over a million dollars in counterfeit notes before they were caught," says Roháč. "A million dollars was a lot more money back then than it is now. I guess the high value of the counterfeit money, and the high quality of the fake notes, made Mr. Johnson a worthy arch nemesis of the famous detective John Wilson Murray."

Fortunately, Johnson escaped one of the most outlandish punishments administered for counterfeiting: the cangue. Practiced by the Chinese into the last century, Roháč says, "The cangue is like a pillory, the head is put through a hole in a large board, rested on the shoulders and then locked in place. The criminal is able to walk around with the board but the cangue prevented them from feeding or caring for themselves. They would have to rely on family for survival. The cangues were often left on for a period of thirty days. Not only were the cangues uncomfortable, they were considered extremely shameful."

Hopefully, the Bank of Canada's new polymer notes will help dissuade counterfeiters and the nation won't have to introduce the cangue. But according to Roháč, we can all play a small part in stopping counterfeiters in their tracks.

"Bank notes do not only have to be difficult to counterfeit -- they have to be made in such a way that it is easy for someone receiving them to check and make sure they are real," she says. "Each one of us who handles money can be like the great Detective John Wilson Murray and stop counterfeiting just by taking a closer look at our bank notes."

See related: How to beat fraud; What you can do to minimize your risk of card fraud

Published December 1, 2011

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