Fact Check

Strip in U.S. Banknote

Does the plastic strip embedded in U.S. currency enable the government to track it?

Published Feb 5, 2007


Claim:   The plastic strip embedded in U.S. bank notes enable the Feds to tell how much money you have on you.



[Collected on the Internet, 2001]

This past weekend, a friend visiting our house told us that the anti-counterfeiting strip put in newly printed paper money can be used to determine how much cash you are carrying. She said that the ever-present "they" at the airport have a machine that can determine how much cash you have on your person or in your luggage, and if you are carrying a sufficiently large amount of cash, you will be detained by the police and interrogated until you confess your guilt as a drug smuggler.

[Collected on the Internet, 2003]

I did not get this in an e-mail but my bank teller in Kirksville, MO told me this one. Evidently there is an urban legend floating around that the new "security strip" in the new $20's can be read by satellites with the implication being the Govt. can beam a satellite on you and eventually, when all the bills in circ. will have these, be able to tell how much $ you are carrying around. This teller told me that she has had customers come in requesting "no new $20s" for this reason!

We had a good laugh about it and we both agreed that the Govt. is going to be sorely disappointed if they turned this hypothetical satellite on us!


Origins:   The ongoing effort to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters has led to the inclusion of a number of security features in U.S. currency. One countermeasure in particular has come to be the focus of a widely-believed bit lore: the embedded inscribed security thread.

According to scuttlebutt, the purpose of the thread isn't really to make it more difficult for the ill-intentioned to introduce

X-rayed money

worthless currency into circulation by fooling its recipients into thinking it genuine, but instead to allow the government to know exactly how much money anyone is carrying at any particular moment. With the use of special scanners, or possibly a beam from a distant satellite, the Feds can quickly count the value of all bank notes being carried on or about one's person and thus track how much money is entering or leaving the country, and with whom. This knowledge, says the behind-the-hand whisperings, is used to finger drug dealers and smugglers.

The rumor is bunk. The strip's sole purpose is the foiling of counterfeiters. It, along with a number of other security features worked into the nation's bank notes, make it far harder on the criminal element to produce phony bills that will be mistaken for the real thing. Other features include the microprinting of "The United States of America" within the rim surrounding the portraits on bills, a watermark displayed elsewhere on the bill of the figure in the portrait, and optically variable ink (OVI) which changes from green to black in the number in the lower right-hand corner of the bill when viewed from different angles. As for the suspect strip, it is made of polyester and is inscribed with the denomination of the bill.

Nothing about the composition of these strips renders them detectable by scanner or satellite. In 2004, the false belief attaching to this security feature was enhanced by the claim of these bands containing RFID tags. As technology advanced, so did the rumor, leading many to microwave their $20 bills into ashen submission by falling for the canard that nuking their currency would disable these


Yet the belief about governmental detection of concealed sums via a subterfuge worked into the currency even predates the polyester security threads. In the 1980s, those similarly worried about being tracked by Big Brother fretted over the ink with which bank notes were printed, muttering to themselves that the "magnetic ink" they believed to have been used rendered the bills somehow magnetic and thus detectable by machine. Back then, the concern was more that this magnetic money would serve to pinpoint the location of the person carrying it rather than it give away how much of it was being ported, but it is another form of the same belief.

One confirmation that nothing in and of itself is detectable about the polyester strips embedded in bank notes arises out of the news about security technologies now used at some U.S. airports, including Chicago's O'Hare. Were caches of greenbacks already being ferreted out via their embedded threads, descriptions of the BodySearch scanner, a device that uses special "backscatter" X-rays to produce images of items that might be concealed under passengers' clothing, would not always impart the glad tidings that this gizmo reveals the presence of currency as well as narcotics, plastic explosives, and plastic weapons.

While in the main, the "sneakily embedded technology allows for the surreptitious tracking of people or their assets" rumor attaches to currency and blames the government for the supposed spying, the belief also carries to other items and points fingers at other parties.

[Kamradt, 2003]

Some students have not picked up their new ID cards through the re-carding project, which ends today, because of a rumor that there is a locator chip inside the IDs so Purdue can track their whereabouts.

"To dispel the transponder rumors, I was closely involved in developing the requirements for production of the ID cards and I can ensure students that no secret electronic devices were embedded in these cards," said Terry Schroeder, project manager for the Purdue ID Re-carding Project. "From my understanding, most of the group that met to discuss this issue (as a result of distributed flyers) were wearing aluminum foil beanies."

[Mulkins, 2000]

I heard that a person carrying a large number of $100 bills, going through the PikePass readers, could be detected and the exact amount of money determined. The authorities are using PikePass to detect drug dealers and then confiscating the money, even confiscating the money of innocent persons.

(PikePass is a prepaid toll device containing a battery and a radio-frequency modulator placed on the windshield of a vehicle. As a car bearing one travels under a transmitter overhanging a turnpike lane, the device intercepts the signal being broadcast and returns a signal exclusive to that particular PikePass customer. The signal is read, and the toll is subtracted from the customer's account.)

Whereas student ID cards and prepaid toll signalers do at least have a whiff of the enigmatic to their technology, which works to encourage belief that some of that incomprehensibility might be of nefarious intent (we mistrust what we don't understand, after all), this next expression of the rumor is even farther afield:

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

I recently received an email telling me that I need to take the labels off my canned good and mark the bare cans with a marker, or at least black out the UPCs. Why? Well, it seems the government has helicopters equipped with scanners that can read the UPCs of the food you have stored. Ostensibly, the government is doing this so they can confiscate food for redistribution in the up coming Y2K breakdown of society. When asked to verify, the poster informed me she was told this by a 'family friend" who flies one of these scanner-equipped helicopters. Of course he doesn't want to be named for his own safety, but he risked telling his dear friends because he loves them.

While most folks will laugh off the thought of their soup cans spying on them, the same cannot be said of the belief that their long green is being counted by surveillance satellites sent into orbit by a government intent upon keeping tabs on its citizens — a great many appear to believe that.

Barbara "watch your money, don't worry about your money watching you" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In a first-season episode of television's The X Files ("E.B.E.," original air date 18 February 1994), a member of a group that believes the government is up to any number of monstrous conspiracies takes a $20 bill from Agent Scully, holds it up to the light, rips the left side off, and pulls out its security strip, saying, "They use this magnetic strip to track you. Whenever you go through a metal detector at an airport, they know exactly how much you're carrying."

Additional information:

    Inscribed Security Thread   Inscribed Security Thread   (Secret Service)
    Money Design Features   Money Design Features   (Secret Service)
    The Redesigned $20 Note   The Redesigned $20 Note   (Bureau of Engraving)

Last updated:   19 May 2011


    Drew, Christopher and Stephen Engelberg.   "Super-Counterfeit $100's Baffle U.S."

    The New York Times.   27 February 1996   (p. A10).

    Garber, Andrew.   "New Airport Gadgets Strip, Sniff, Scan."

    The Seattle Times.   23 October 2001   (p. A1).

    Kamradt, Kori.   "Officials Dismiss Rumors About New IDs."

    The [Purdue University] Exponent .   14 November 2003.

    Mulkins, Phil.   "PikePass Can't Count Dope Dealers' Money."

    Tulsa World.   28 July 2000.

    Webb, Tom.   "U.S. Currency to Get Makeover."

    The Denver Post.   14 July 1994   (p. A4).

    Zane, Maitland.   "Counterfeit-Proof Cash Makes Its Debut."

    The San Francisco Chronicle.   26 July 1991   (p. A1).

    The Associated Press.   "O'Hare Officials Install Scanner, Hoping to Replace Body Searches."

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch.   23 November 1999   (p. B2).

Article Tags