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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Protect Your Money and Documents with Security-Printing

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When I read the news, sometimes it seems that identity theft and other forms of white collar crime constitute the fastest growing profession.

With that thought in mind I recently did some research on security printing, the branch of commercial printing focused on preventing fraud. I was pleased to see all the techniques and options this fast-growing arena of custom printing includes. The following paragraphs describe what I found.

But first of all, I want to note that I have not addressed a similar custom printing venue involving the protection of pharmaceuticals from tampering. Instead, I will focus on the printing of banknotes, passports, checks, stamps, ID cards, and other similar products that either carry monetary value or verify the identity of the holder.

However, in the case of both identification materials and currency on the one hand, and pharmaceuticals on the other, the idea is the same. When we get a credit card, a $50 bill, or a bottle of Lipitor, we want the assurance that they are the original, intended product, that nothing has been tampered with, that our identity is safe, and that our currency holds its value.

In all of these cases, digital, offset, and flexographic printing can help. Here are some of the options.

The Paper or Plastic Substrate

Look at the cash in your wallet. You’ll see that it is probably cotton-based (or at least a high percentage of cotton content) rather than wood-based. In some cases linen has been included, along with special fibers that are added to distinguish the paper substrate from other papers. You may even have seen a shop vendor mark a high-value paper banknote with a special marker to make absolutely certain the currency is authentic.

All of this is done because the bad guys probably don’t have access to this special paper. And they probably also don’t have access to the engraving processes used to print currency. So if a bill is on questionable paper, that’s a “red flag,” as they say. The individuality, or specific characteristics, of the paper stock help provide protection against fraud.

And so do the portions of some currency bills that include holograms. This is true for a vast number of countries and not just here in the United States. Holograms are extremely difficult if not impossible to forge or even remove.

Another option for the base substrate used for currency (in Canada, Hong Kong, and Nigeria, for instance) is polymer rather than paper. Plastic is more durable than paper, and it can include raised printing and diffraction gratings. (Like a hologram, any item that changes color based on the viewing angle makes forgery exceptionally difficult.)

True Watermarks and Fake Watermarks

If you have fine bond stationery in your office or home, hold it up to the light. You will see a difference in tone between the watermark and the surrounding paper. The watermark is either lighter or darker. This is actually due to a difference in the density of the paper at that location.

This cannot be faked. The mark is included in the paper during the papermaking process. A dandy roller or stamp presses this mark into the still-wet paper mixture during its manufacture.

Fake watermarks are also used to distinguish an original from a copy. These are “white-on-white” printing, done with commercial printing ink. A criminal who photocopies a document with a fake watermark won’t be able to capture the tone difference between the fake watermark and the surrounding paper (just like an attempt to copy a true watermark). The difference in reflectance between the fake watermark ink and the paper (when seen at a particular angle) disappears when the document is photocopied.

Other technologies, such as the Diffractive Optical Element, work in similar ways but require a laser for operation. And some varnishes (such as iriodin varnish) will create a reflection only under certain viewing angles.

Void Pantograph and Verification Grid (Two Copy-Evident Marks)

These are similar to the concept of the watermark. The idea in all three cases is that you can make forgery more difficult if you can include a graphic element on the original that shows up on a phtotocopy or scan (but is invisible on the genuine document) or a graphic element that is visible on the original but that disappears on the photocopy.

More specifically, a “void pantograph” includes dots, dashes, and lines that are invisible in the original but show up on the copy. These marks may actually combine to form a word such as “Void” in large letters.

A “verification grid” is the exact opposite. The additional marks are meant to be seen. But photocopying the document makes these security marks disappear. Some checks have marks or symbols of this type. I’ve also seen doctors’ prescriptions that use this technology (or the preceding one).


A black and white document is easier to duplicate, so you can make it more difficult for a forger by adding color. If the forger tries to make a copy using a scanner and color copy machine, the color will be slightly off, and there may be banding, blotching, or other flaws on the duplicate image.

Another option based on color involves the use of optically variable ink (OVI), which presents different colors depending on the viewing angle. This ink includes mica-based glitter, which creates the effect. Pearlescent inks can also be used, since the colors also appear to change based on the viewing angle.

Some inks will even change color based on temperature (thermochromatic inks). Heat from one’s hands can change the ink color because the temperature of the printed ink rises when it is rubbed.

Images printed with other special inks will only be visible when viewed through a polarizing lens.

Still other forgery-resistant inks include fluorescent and phosphorescent dyes, which can be used to create words, images, or patterns. Fluorescent dyes will be visible under UV light, and phosphorescent dyes will actually glow after the UV light has been turned off.

Precise Printing Registration

In all two-sided printing jobs (such as a brochure), a good commercial printing vendor has to ensure accurate back-to-front register. The printed images on both sides need to be positioned precisely. So this is an ideal way to distinguish an original from a forgery. On a banknote, for instance, if specific images or portions of images on the front do not align exactly and properly with those on the back, you’ve got a forgery. And such exact alignment is very difficult for a forger to duplicate. On currency from various countries you might find numerals (or portions of numerals) that align, or symbols that align (like two equal-armed crosses in back-to-front alignment on some denominations of the Swiss franc).

Serial Numbers and Microprinting

If a printer adds type small enough to be invisible to the naked eye, this can still be read under magnification. It is also extremely difficult for a forger to duplicate.

Serial numbers can do the same thing, particularly if they have certain ranges of numbers programmed to be invalid. If the bad guys don’t know this, they can’t sidestep this protection.

(On another note, serial-number protection is increasingly in demand, since digital commercial printing can vary every copy printed, changing the serial number for each item. Serial numbers are also used to authenticate pharmaceuticals, ensuring that you get the right dose of a genuine drug that has not been tampered with.)


Mentioned earlier in this article, these can be added with hot foil stamping. They are almost impossible to duplicate or remove.

RFID Options

Printers can now even add ultra-small radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to documents. One might find these in passports, since some of these RFID chips can be used with facial-recognition or fingerprint-verification software.

The Takeaway

New technologies for preventing white collar crime appear every day. You might find it useful in your profession (design and printing) to learn about them, and you may even rest easier knowing that the bad guys have to work harder. Personally, I’m most grateful for all of these new commercial printing technologies. Do some research. I’m sure you’ll even find other options out there.

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