On the twenty-third floor of the tower housing the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, we enter through a security airlock into a secret place: the laboratory for combating counterfeit euro banknotes in circulation.
A room that looks like a college practical work room contains a series of sophisticated machines, between a microscope for 3D vision, a balance adjusted to the nearest microgram and a scientific reader to analyze the ten or so visible signs of security inserted as “signature” in each post.
The handful of experts who work there are tasked with spotting the latest imitation techniques employed by counterfeiters.
Because the counterfeiting of euros remains, 20 years after the circulation of cash, a reality, even if the number has decreased over the years.
Around 460,000 counterfeit euro denominations were thus withdrawn from circulation in 2020, a decrease of 18% over one year.
By comparison, there are currently around 27 billion euro banknotes in circulation.
– Ant work –
Experts in Frankfurt must do a painstaking job, comparing real fake cuts with tiny security details under a microscope.
On a real euro banknote, enlarged nearly seventy times on a computer screen, the interior of the number “twenty”, its value, thus resembles the furrows of a plowing field, emphasizing a raised impression. , as demonstrated by the ECB team. A gross counterfeit would not have the same result.
The citizens outside do not have them “not necessarily the reflex to look well at the banknotes to easily spot imitations”, explains Eric Languillat, one of the experts of the central bank.
The ECB has been educating the public for years through the “touch, look, tilt” method.
Because “if you take a good look at a note, the quality of a counterfeit being generally quite bad, it will be very easy to identify it”, assures Mr. Languillat.
In the end, the risk remains despite everything “very low” for consumers to recover a fake banknote, also wants to believe Jean-Michel Grimal, head of the Banknotes Development Division within the ECB.
According to him, this explains the “strong confidence rating” of the single currency as a secure means of payment within the European population, at nearly 80% according to the latest public surveys.
– Iron cabinet –
The strategic lab room, set in a corner, is an iron cabinet that requires two people to open it, each knowing part of a secret combination.
Inside are stored nearly 1,000 counterfeit banknotes, from 5 to 500 euros, which have been analyzed there for twenty years.
Each country in the euro zone has its own counterfeit center. But it is in Frankfurt that the catalog of the most “interesting” banknotes is drawn up because they are the best imitated, explains Eric Languillat.
These data will in turn help police forces like Europol, which track down criminal networks.
The ECB’s research and development teams, responsible for improving the quality and security of banknotes, are also interested in the findings of this laboratory.
“If we see particular technological efforts made by counterfeiters, the R&D teams will wonder if there is not something to put in place to thwart them”, explains Mr. Grimal.
Each year, the monetary institute mobilizes large budgets to try to manufacture inimitable banknotes. And this recipe remains for obvious reasons secret.
The aim is to “reduce the risk of counterfeiting to almost zero”, according to Mr. Grimal, an engineer, who was a researcher at Saint-Gobain before joining the world of central banks.
The efforts made by the ECB remain “a very good investment compared to the cost of a major counterfeiting crisis” in the euro zone, he is convinced.