Anyone who wants to fake euro notes in future will have to make it past a new and powerful enemy – the Greek mythical figure Europa.
The European Central Bank, the ECB, hopes Europa will do a better job of guarding the young currency's gates and make a dent in the increasingly lucrative business of counterfeiting on the European continent.
The use of counterfeit money continues to grow in Europe, as the euro currency that has been used in 19 countries on the continent since 2002 continues to mature.
Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, said last year was the worst year since the early years in 2005.
To make counterfeiting more difficult, the ECB, which like the Federal Reserve in the United States is charged with printing money for the European continent, has been developing new security features that are slowly being rolled out across the currency bloc – the first upgrades since the notes were first introduced to much fanfare in 2002.
The incidence of counterfeits has risen significantly, but still remains at a low level. Carl-Ludwig Thiele, Bundesbank
Mario Draghi, the ECB’s president, this week unveiled a new 20-euro bill, which will go into circulation in November of this year. It follows similar upgrades to the five- and 10-euro notes in the past two years.
Upgrades to the 50-euro note - the most used and most counterfeited along with the 20-euro bill - and higher denominations will be rolled out in coming years.
While counterfeiting in Europe still pales in comparison to the United States, Mr. Draghi has some reason to be worried. The numbers of counterfeit notes in circulation has been increasing dramatically over the last few years – more than 500,000 notes were detected in the second half of this year alone (see graphic), though a small fraction of the roughly 16 billion notes in circulation.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has detected a similar rise.
"The incidence of counterfeits has risen significantly, but still remains at a low level," Carl-Ludwig Thiele, the Bundesbank’s board member in charge of cash management, said in January.
Statistics from the Bundesbank showed that, in 2014, more counterfeit euros were in circulation than in any year since 2005 – about 63,000 fake notes in circulation and in banks, according to police, causing €3.3 million in losses, or about $3.75 million.
Video: Presenting Europa: Mario Draghi unveiled the new 20-euro note.
Twenty-euro and 50-euro bills are the most frequently used in Europe. That makes them a favorite of counterfeiters - about 86 percent of euro fakes last year were of these two notes.
But Germany in particular still has a problem on its hands. The country has a bigger problem with fake 50s than with fake 20s, according to the Bundesbank. The opposite is true for the euro zone as a whole - a sign perhaps of the relative wealth of Germany compared to the rest of Europe.
Counterfeiting euros is still a small business compared to the long-established practice of faking U.S. dollars.
The US Secret Service, which guards the world’s top reserve currency, uncovered some $156 million in counterfeit dollars in 2013 and arrested 2,668 people for faking the world’s top reserve currency. The practice is a lucratice business in far-away countries including Colombia, Peru and North Korea, where the government even supports the operation.
The European Central Bank is promoting its new security features in an elaborate marketing campaign. The bank’s website even has an online Tetris tile-matching game featuring the new bill.
The new Europa bills include a small “portrait window” to the right of the gleaming hologram stripe. Hold the bill up to a light, and you can see a portrait of Europa, the Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in Greek mythology. Tilt the note slightly, and the number 20 appears on a rainbow colored surface.
As with the new five- and 10-euro notes, Europa is also visible in watermarks and silver hologram bands. On the front side, a shimmering emerald number will also be tough for counterfeiters to replicate. On the borders to the left and right of the front, the bill has raised lines that can be felt. The motif, color and size is otherwise the same as the original euro notes.
The new design could cause problems for automatic machines that accept cash notes – similar problems plagued the unveiling of the five- and 10-euro notes before it.
At the time, automatic machines throughout Europe would not accept the new bills. The issue was a special coating that made the five-euro note somewhat thicker and heavier than its predecessor. Operators will be given a chance to test the new bills in their machines, hopefully to avoid problems.
The new 20-euro bill is the third in the Europa series, following the five- and 10-euro notes. In coming years, other bills up to 500 euros will also be redesigned.
Christopher Cermak is an editor covering finance, economics and monetary policy for the Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Anja Stehle is a trainee reporter for Handelsblatt studying at the Georg von Holtzbrinck School of Journalism in Düsseldorf. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].