Providing Security

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 09.08.05

Printing ink manufacturers continue to develop innovative new products to help in the battle to thwart counterfeiters and provide additional security.

There is a tremendous array of security documents one comes across in everyday life. The most basic examples are financial: banknotes, stocks, bonds and checks readily come to mind. There are many other valuable documents, including gift certificates, coupons, warranties, event tickets, lottery tickets and receipts.

Verifiable documents also include other essentials such as driver’s licenses, birth certificates, visas, passports, entry passes and countless other forms of identification.

These documents all have value, which makes them of interest to counterfeiters. Government estimates on counterfeiting range as high as $1 trillion. The challenge is to avoid being counterfeited, through the use of a variety of security measures including innovative inks, special substrates, intricate patterns and other elaborate approaches.

“To the layman, a banknote looks like a piece of paper printed in color,” said Hans-Wolfgang Blumschein, managing director (dept.), marketing and sales at Gebr. Schmidt Druckfarben. “In reality, it is a security network consisting of many components that, taken together, represent an absolutely high-tech product.”

Regardless of how high-tech the original document is, counterfeiters still will try to create fraudulent documents for their own profit or use. Making that document or product virtually impossible to counterfeit is the goal of document designers and printers.

What is a Counterfeit?

Richard Warner, senior research scientist/government contracts at the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), defines a security document as “a printed medium, the authenticity and validity of which can be verified. “Counterfeiters make look-alikes that won’t stand up under forensic study, but the average person might not be able to detect it,” Mr. Warner said. “When you get to the big-time criminal element, they go to all the trouble to determine everything in the document. They reverse-engineer the process.”

“If you could make a document that’s so difficult to counterfeit that the bad guys go to another document, you’ve succeeded,” said Douglas Gordon, founder of Calesec & Associates Inc., an Ottawa, Canada-based specialist in secure document applications, technology and development. “It’s not so much what you put in the documents, it’s how you put it all together. There’s no silver bullet – it’s putting it together in a thoughtful, comprehensive way. You have to look at your document and then think about how it can be destroyed. I know of documents that within two days of being issued were counterfeited.”

“There are different layers of security, and they have to be easy to use and difficult to reproduce,” said Thomas A. Ferguson, director, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, U.S. Department of Treasury. “The ultimate goal is to come up with a design which you can reproduce billions of times that no one can reproduce once.”

The Cost of Security

While it is theoretically possible to design a bill that is practically impossible to counterfeit, the cost of doing so might be prohibitive.

“We believe that we have to determine what the threat is and how much you need to spend to defeat it,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We could put all kinds of features in our currency, but at a high cost that might also reduce the life of the bills.”

“It depends on the need, and to what extent you want to secure a document,” Mr. Warner said. “There’s a cost factor involved, and there can be overkill. You still want to maintain the functionality of a document, and there are some devices that are extremely secure but may not apply. In general, most people in the security industry will tell you that a minimum of three or more security devices is suggested.”

As one would imagine, security comes at a price: the cost for security documents are much higher than non-secure products. Security printing is a costly business to operate, and extra care has to be taken.

In higher-profile industries, building security is of the essence, and clearances for the employees are the norm. Transportation of materials and the finished product also has to be tightly protected, and all raw materials must be accounted for at the end of the day.

Even disposal must be done properly. Mr. Gordon said in one instance in Chicago, IL, counterfeiters found what they needed in a dumpster. “When you dispose of document waste, it has to be done in a controlled, thorough fashion,” Mr. Gordon said.

Thwarting Counterfeiters

How are security documents designed to maintain their integrity against counterfeiters? Mr. Warner and Mr. Gordon both point to the most recent version of the US passport as an example of an extremely difficult document to counterfeit.

“There is no one layer that will make a document difficult to counterfeit,” Mr. Warner said. “You want to design it so it becomes a real pain for the counterfeiter. The more you put in, the chances of it being counterfeited are less. For example, each page of the US passport has a different design.”

“Currently, one of the more successful documents is the new US passport,” Mr. Gordon said. “It was approached from a different angle, and the people who did it thought it through and applied an effective group of technologies. There have been few successful attempts to counterfeit it. It’s the way it was put together.”

John Mercer, projects officer for the US Passport Service, helped in the redesign, which was first issued more than three years ago. So far, he knows of no effective counterfeit, which makes the document a success. By contrast, photo-substituted fraudulent copies of the previous redesign of the US passport were seen within a week of it being issued.

“A successful document is one that has not been readily counterfeited,” Mr. Mercer said. “The US passport has been good. I don’t think anyone would have expected the passport to last three years without having a deceptive fraud attempt.”

To redesign the passport, Mr. Mercer and his colleagues changed the way it was built.

“We changed the way by which information is put into the passport,” Mr. Mercer said. “The main problem with the previous passport was the way the photo was put in. Now we use a digital photo which is under a thin laminate overlay. We don’t know of a way to take the overlay off that wouldn’t be noticeable.”

The Importance of R&D

A new technology for documents and products does not happen overnight. It takes long hours of research and development, testing and service, all of which are critical to the security field.

Mr. Mercer said that ink companies have to be service-oriented, consistent and innovative. “Service is critical,” he said. “If you have a problem on a press run, you can’t change the paper or the press. I also expect consistent product and innovation, since we don’t do ink research here.”

SICPA, a Prilly, Switzerland-based printing ink manufacturer, estimates that its inks are used in 90 percent of the world’s banknotes. Its US operations, SICPA Securink, is headquartered in Springfield, VA.

“We’re in a constant battle with the bad guys, and to keep ahead, we have to stay strong in R&D,” said James Bonhivert, SICPA Securink’s president and CEO. “It’s a very dynamic environment, and we have to keep raising the bar.”

“We’re a very R&D intensive company throughout the world,” said Tom Classick, SICPA Securink’s technical director. “We have various Centers of Excellence around the globe. The entire electromagnetic spectrum is our domain.”

An intaglio plate. (Photo courtesy of Gebr. Schmidt Druckfarben)


Frankfurt, Germany-based Gebr. Schmidt Druckfarben (GS) is a leader in security inks, especially intaglio. The company also manufactures UV, IR, magnetic, conductive, erasable, thermochromic, photochromic and many other types of inks. It has well-known national banks and state-owned and private banknote printing works worldwide among its customers.

“Gebr. Schmidt has many years of experience in creating recipes for security printing, and in particular for the intaglio process,” said Mr. Blumschein. “Accordingly, banknotes printed with GS inks have passed through billions of hands throughout the world.

“To be a supplier of security inks means occupying a position of trust,” Mr. Blumschein continued. “It demands full commitment and absolute reliability. GS satisfies customers’ wishes both individually and flexibly. Our R&D division works together with the experts of our customers to jointly develop special spot colors or security recipes. Based on our many years of experience, we can realize all specifications down to the finest detail in tailored recipes in order to obtain optimal solutions with flexibility, creativity and high speed. Application support at the press and permanent service are a matter of course.

“Customer relations at GS are characterized by personal commitment,” Mr. Blumschein said. “We repeatedly set new standards of performance for the proven printing techniques, and in addition our innovations open up advantageous possibilities for new print applications. The guiding principle in all cases are the wishes of our customers for present and future solutions.”

Robert Steffens is president of Cronite, a Parsippany, NJ-based company that specializes in intaglio inks for engraved stationery. Utilizing that technology, a particular favorite of document printers, Cronite has created a variety of specialty inks, including thermochromatic, photochromatic, fluorescent, infrared and UV inks, as well as some unique applications.

Mr. Steffens said that Cronite has created some unique intaglio inks that are virtually impossible to duplicate, including a pressure-sensitive ink used for checks and bus passes outside the US

“R&D is critical, especially when you get sophisticated applications,” Mr. Steffens said. “We’ve come up with some really special inks. We have pressure-variable metallic inks based on silver ink and a dispersion color mixed in it. Depending upon impact, it turns silver. If it’s scanned, the silver turns gray and lacks gloss. To reproduce this would require the correct plate, press, color of ink and the ink itself, as well as the press operator who creates the right quantity of pressure.”

Cooperative Efforts

Security devices are numerous. A special substrate can be selected, whether it is the polymers used for Australia’s currency to specific paper properties. Windows can be die cut into the document, which would eliminate the ability to copy or digitally remake a document. Holograms can be added, and items can be foil embossed. Patterns, such as guilloche (or swirl), microtext border lines readable only under the closest observation and watermarks visible only by UV are just a few of the typical approaches.

Cooperation among printers, raw material suppliers and press manufacturers is absolutely essential in security printing. For particularly critical projects, there may be exclusive rights to key raw materials such as pigments, substrates and inks.

“One of the things that makes a device useful is its scarcity,” Mr. Warner said. “You don’t want everybody to have ready access to it. For example, there are only certain pigments used in particular applications.”

“We have numerous strategic research alliances with high tech developers and partners that give us a leading technological edge,” said Tom Jay, vice president of sales and marketing at SICPA Securink.

“Security printing inks – and especially the printing of banknotes – is a very special discipline among all printing tasks,” Mr. Blumschein said. “The exacting security specification alone means that all those concerned in the process – from the printing press manufacturers to the paper producers, up to the ink suppliers – are a small, exclusive circle of specialists.

“In order to achieve the objective of ‘optimal security,’ it is essential for one hand to know what the other is doing,” Mr. Blumschein continued. “For this reason, it is necessary to optimally match the inks to the individual requirements of the emitter, the special characteristics of the print substrate, the knowledge of many press parameters as well as other influencing factors. Due to continuous development in cooperation with press manufacturers, paper producers and security printing plants, the performance of GS ink systems for security printing is always in line with the latest technical state of the art and satisfies the most exacting demands of the market.”

Ink Types

Printing inks play a critical role in the world of security documents. There are numerous types of inks that can be used, including:

• UV and fluorescent inks, which are visible only under the right lighting.

• IR inks, which are scanned under infrared lighting and then re-emit the absorbed
   energy in the visible spectrum.

• Thermochromic inks, which are heat-sensitive and react if a person rubs the document.

• Photochromic and flash-reactive inks, which are light-sensitive and are destroyed
   when photocopied.

• Water-fugitive inks and chemically-reactive inks, in which the ink disappears after
   either water or a specific chemical is applied.

• Magnetic inks, which are readable only by a scanner.

In particular, some industry experts believe that IR inks will be an area of growth, and that ultimately, tight color mixes with a specific element that may be read by a scanner will be a successful system in the future.

“Some inks are very sophisticated,” Mr. Warner said. “You can do an awful lot with UV inks, because they can be visible or invisible. Infrared inks are the reverse – they absorb IR, and re-emit it in the visible spectrum. A hologram is a great device for securing a document.”

Thermochromic and photochromic inks are segments that have drawn interest in numerous products, from payroll checks and other documents to brand protection.

“Photochromic inks are similar to fluorescents, in that they react to UV light,” said Glenn Small, vice president of sales and marketing at Chromatic Technologies, Inc., a Denver, CO-based ink manufacturer. “The difference is that the effect slowly fades away after a few minutes. Thermochromic inks react to temperature changes.”

The most primitive form of counterfeiting is placing a document on a copier. Using a specialty ink such as thermochromic or photochromic ink eliminates that approach, as a copy simply will not have the same properties when placed under a particular light or is exposed to a different temperature.

“You can’t reproduce the effect of thermochromic or photochromic inks,” Mr. Small said. “It’s very effective.”

Tampa, FL-based Atlantic Printing Ink has been active in the security ink field. Its NWS3-41,000 series of security marking inks includes thermochromatic, photochromatic, black light indicators in several colors (blue, red, orange, yellow), coinable with several color change imaging, scratch-off, thermal coatings, watermark, and magnetic encoding inks, as well as custom formulations.

Patrick Laden, vice president of Atlantic Printing Ink, said that security features range from overt to covert. “A hologram is an example of an overt system, and it is virtually impossible to reproduce,” said Mr. Laden. “Covert systems include UV and thermochromic inks, and they take some sophistication to reproduce.”

“Cronite strongly believes that overt forms of security are the strongest,” Mr. Steffens said. “You want to complicate the item to such an extent that the counterfeiter will go on to another document. Covert is only good for checking to see if the overt method has been counterfeited. If you can see that a $100 has been counterfeited right away, it won’t be accepted. We think everybody should know if a document has been counterfeited.

“The easiest way to counterfeit is ink jet, and it’s been growing wildly,” Mr. Steffens said. “However, by using embossing, foil stamping or the intaglio process, you can deter counterfeiters.”

U.S. Currency and Postage

Over the years, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has implemented a variety of security measures in the U.S. currency. In 1991, a thread with text was embedded in higher currencies. In 1996, new $100 bills were issued with a variety of new technologies. A larger off-center portrait was used, as well as a concentric fine line design and a new watermark.

Perhaps the most sophisticated security measure was the Optically Variable Ink, in which the currency’s dollar value in bottom right corner changes color from green to black depending on the angle that it is viewed. Since 1996, redesigned $10, $20 and $50 bills have been introduced that feature these technologies.

“A security feature has to be very hard to reproduce,” said Mr. Bonhivert of SICPA Securink. “Our color-shifting ink is virtually impossible to reproduce, unless the counterfeiters have millions and millions of dollars to invest in machines.”

“I think it’s worked well,” Mr. Ferguson said. “There’s nothing we can do to eliminate counterfeits, and we know that some people don’t even try to defeat our security features. Counterfeiting is such a small percentage – one-hundredth of 1 percent.”

Still, these features have not deterred all counterfeiters from trying to commit fraud.

“We have seen every type of counterfeit, from very sophisticated intaglio to very poor ink jet with terrible feel and no security thread, watermark and security ink,” said Mr. Ferguson.

Stamps are a multi-billion dollar market worldwide, but the individual value of stamps compared to the cost of counterfeiting them essentially makes counterfeiting prohibitive. There are a few examples of special features; the U.S. and Canada have used microtext on some stamp issues, and a few countries, including Germany, have holograms on a few stamps. Elaborate measures are infrequent, according to experts.

“The majority of postage stamps are printed offset or gravure and contain far less security due to their relatively low value,” Mr. Ferguson said.

“I’ve been told there’s no market for counterfeiting stamps, although there have been some higher-priced optically variable stamps in the U.K.,” Mr. Gordon said. “Color shifting ink on a 35-cent stamp is totally not economical.”

Counterfeit Goods

Counterfeits are not limited to documents. There is also a market for counterfeit goods, and even a ‘gray market’ where retailers and other companies may try to avoid the traditional distribution chain in high-end goods and pharmaceuticals by buying large quantities from large retailers. This may lead to warranty issues and other problems, and also keeps manufacturers from receiving a fair price for their product.

Ink companies play a role in protecting these goods as well. Gebr. Schmidt’s Mr. Blumschein said that security concepts for packaging and label printing to protect against product piracy are becoming increasingly important.

“We’re always looking at specialty applications,” said Alan Boyer, manager – research and technology development, imaging systems, at Markem Corporation, a Keene, NH-based manufacturer of security inks. “Our inks appear on items ranging from semiconductors and packaging materials to physical objects. People are interested in security for premium goods, and we can develop custom solutions.”

Markem offers a series of approaches to security. For example, its SmartDate Overprinter series allows companies to place times and dates for traceability. Its 8144 Series, a clear UV ink for use in Markem’s continuous ink jet coders, appears in fluorescent colors when applied to specific UV wavelengths.

The Future

What changes are in store for the future? U.S. currency is one area where change will be more frequent. People who travel the globe know that the U.S. currency is easily recognizable, as it does not vary in color or use unusual features. In contrast, some countries utilize a wide variety of anti-counterfeit measures, including holograms, multiple colors and, in the case of Australia, a polymer with a die-cut window.

“I would say that we are classic, since we don’t use holograms, multiple colors or foil features,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Mr. Ferguson said that the ink jet counterfeits are a target of the Bureau. “One of our major concerns are the counterfeits done on ink jet,” Mr. Ferguson said. “There are some very interesting proposals on polymer-based currency. We’re looking at different substrates, films and polymers. You want something that’s not readily available. Our goal is to have the next series ready to introduce by 2003 if we’re asked to produce it.”

“U.S. currency is now on the path to be redesigned more frequently,” said Mr. Bonhivert. “There will be accelerated changes in security features, with increasing sophistication and complexity.”

Even with all of these unique features, people still have to recognize a fake. Stories about cashiers accepting a $200 bill or a black and white copy of a bill make it clear that eliminating counterfeits completely is unlikely, but publicizing what to look for is a step in the right direction.

“Education is key,” said Mr. Bonhivert. “If people know the features are present, they can validate them.”

Keeping ahead of the bad guys with highly technical innovations may seem glamorous, but it comes at the price of countless hours of hard work.

“It takes hard work to keep ahead of counterfeiting,” Mr. Boyer said.

“You have to be very proactive, and also reactive to what the bad guys are doing,” said Mr. Jay.

“It’s exciting to come up with these features, but it comes from exhaustive R&D,” Mr. Bonhivert added.

Undoubtedly, ink companies will continue to work extra hard with their customers to help ensure the highest level of security for currency, documents and products in the coming years.

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