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Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney walks past a poster of the bank's new circulating $100 bill, Canada's first polymer bank note, in Toronto on Nov. 14, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney walks past a poster of the bank's new circulating $100 bill, Canada's first polymer bank note, in Toronto on Nov. 14, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Funny money: How counterfeiting led to a major overhaul of Canada's money Add to ...



“We made 50 million banknotes in the back of that shed,” Mr. Solomon says. “We had to convince people that they would stand up to the wear and the handling of a banknote.”



Testing new kinds of money isn’t easy, because you can’t put the bills into circulation. Mr. Solomon and his team researched the chemical composition of sweat and body oils and began counterfeiting those too. He put bags of the plastic money through endless trials, tumbling them in a bin like clothes in a dryer to see what would happen.



As it turned out, the bills were not only difficult to counterfeit, they were also more durable, lasting at least 2½-times longer than a paper bill. His tests also answered an important question for the police: Could they still lift fingerprints off the notes? The answer was yes.



The Australian Reserve Bank decided to convert the entire money supply to polymer notes, making it the first country to take such a leap. The first bills emerged in 1988. Mr. Solomon called his invention plastic money, but the government thought that sounded questionable. “The bank had a prejudice against plastic. They considered it cheap and nasty,” he said. So the official name became polymer.



As Mr. Solomon printed his bills, though, he stumbled on a remarkable discovery. The banknotes were made by printing images on a sheet of clear plastic, starting first with a white base coat. But Mr. Solomon learned that if parts of the substrate were left blank, the bill would have a clear plastic window. This was a magnificent invention, since it would make trying to fake a polymer bill using paper or other non-clear material next to impossible. How could paper have a see-through window? This would give the counterfeiters fits, he thought.



In the 17 years Australia has used polymer currency, the country has reported an average counterfeit ratio of just 6.8 PPM, with most of those notes coming from crude attempts at printing replicas on paper, which makes them easy to spot. Australia has needed to design only one series of polymer banknotes that has lasted decades, though counterfeiters have been actively trying to forge plastic money during that time.



This year, a group of men are on trial in Australia for passing fake notes. While previous attempts by other forgers were amateurish, using a crude mixture of paper and flimsy plastic film, these notes were different. The counterfeiters were using nylon to make their fake money. It was one of the best attempts yet, but it still wasn’t close, according to police.



For his efforts, Mr. Solomon now belongs to the London-based Royal Society, an elite fellowship of 1,400 scientists whose members include Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.



HOW CANADA CHANGED ITS MIND



Even as Canada’s counterfeiting problem escalated, the shift to polymer was viewed as too expensive. A polymer note costs 19 cents to produce, compared to 9 cents for a typical cotton-paper note. So the upfront costs of switching are high, even though the bills last longer.



But in 2004, those concerns began to fade away when the Bank of Canada confronted the extent of the counterfeiting problem.



The money found in the grey Hyundai wasn’t perfect, but it was more sophisticated than any fake note seen before. Most notably, the counterfeiters had managed to duplicate the thin holographic stripe introduced on the Canadian Journey series specifically to thwart people like Wesley Weber.



The trail from the grey Hyundai led RCMP to a print shop in an industrial area of North Toronto, where officers found millions of dollars worth of fake $20 bills stacked in rows. In all, RCMP figured out the men had produced $6.7-million of fake notes at this site alone. Jaws dropped as the officers walked in the room.



“This was the largest counterfeiting manufacturing plant in Canadian history,” said Cpl. Laurence, head of the force’s anti-counterfeit division.



From there, RCMP tracked the ring of counterfeiters to another print shop in Markham, Ont., where $4.2-million worth of counterfeit $20 bills were uncovered in 2007.

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