Smart About Money: U.S. Secret Service

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Usually when people have a visit from the U.S. Secret Service, it’s not a positive thing. But when the Secret Service came to see us at Canton Co-operative Bank a few weeks ago, it was at our invitation and I think it’s fair to say it was one of the most fascinating presentations I have ever attended.

secret service

A Secret Service agent stands guard at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

Hearing that the Secret Service was founded after the Civil War, many Americans would guess that it was probably created in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in order to protect future U.S. presidents.

But it turns out that the Secret Service actually did not begin protecting American presidents until after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.

So what was more important than presidential protection even after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — important enough to have a new agency of the U.S. government created to protect it?

The U.S. currency.

After the Civil War, counterfeiting was a huge problem nationwide. Basically every bank would issue its own bank notes — a form of money. Having no national standard for U.S. currency made it very easy for unsuspecting individuals to get fleeced with counterfeit bills. And many were.

To say it was a giant mess would be a vast understatement. Some believe that 30 to 40 percent of the currency in those days was counterfeit.

When you think of where we are today in the high-tech environment of 2017, it’s pretty amazing to recall that, not all that long ago, developing a reliable American currency was actually a major challenge of the day.

As we all know now, the people of those times figured it out. American money became one of the most recognizable and stable currencies in the world.

A large part of that is thanks to the never-ending efforts of the Secret Service to protect the currency — our paper money — along with all of the stand-ins for currency, including credit cards, ATM/debit cards, checks, wire transfers and more.

If you ever saw the movie To Live and Die In L.A. (which was based on a novel by a Secret Service agent), you may recall that Willem Dafoe played counterfeiter Rick Masters, a perfectionist who mixed his own inks and aged his counterfeit bills in a dryer with plastic poker chips. Masters put a lot of effort into making his money look authentic — and that was in 1985.

We asked the Secret Service agent who visited us at the bank if laser printers were helping counterfeiters create better and better counterfeit money. “You would think it would be better,” he said. “But it’s actually worse.” Apparently because laser printers let counterfeiters with less-exacting standards than Rick Masters get into the game.

We also asked the agent what businesses and individuals could do to keep from getting stuck with counterfeit currency.

“Easy,” he said. “Most customers pay businesses via a bank account or credit card. So if someone wants to pay you a large amount in cash, you would be well-advised to ask yourself why. This especially goes for landlords and companies with a lot of high-ticket, one-time purchases.”

For individuals, being alert is your best protection. It you’re concerned that paper money someone is giving you may not be genuine, look it over for anything that seems unusual — for example, if the size of the bill seems off or there are words in a foreign language. If it says “Motion Picture Money,” you’re looking at a counterfeit.

If you have any questions or concerns, protect your safety in the moment and then feel free to contact your local police. (The Canton Police have a tremendous detective division and they work closely with the U.S. Secret Service.)

Nick Maffeo is the president and CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. Have a question? Email to submissions@thecantoncitizen.com.

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