Brazil has dismantled several large, sophisticated counterfeit cash rings in recent months, indicating that criminal groups with the technological savvy to print fake banknotes are seizing on the economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic.
In December, Brazilian websites were found selling fake notes of 50, 100 and 200 reais ($10, $20 and $40), according to an investigation by TecMundo. The websites, which promoted the fake currency as a way to "increase your income," touted that the counterfeiters had "nine years of experience" and promised that the notes would stand up to counterfeit pen and ultraviolet light testing. The cybercriminals even advertised their services through Google.
Earlier, in November, São Paulo police dismantled a counterfeiting network that had put over 10 million reais (just under $2 million) of counterfeit bills in circulation, UOL reported. Police seized some 500,000 reais (about $100,000) in fake bills during the operation.
The November operation followed a spate of earlier ones throughout Brazil. In early July, federal police shut down a large clandestine counterfeit money shop in São Paulo, confiscating 77,980 fake banknotes that amounted to more than 2 million reais ($400,000), according to a government press release.
A July raid took out a counterfeiting facility in Rio Grande do Sul. And in September, police broke up a counterfeit money operation that had produced over 10 million reais ($2 million) in Minas Gerais.
Brazil’s counterfeit money trade is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2019, Brazilian authorities seized 440,000 fake notes, totaling more than 27 million reais ($5 million), Estadão reported.
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For criminal groups seeking out new sources of income -- particularly as drug trafficking and human trafficking have been severely disrupted by the pandemic -- the counterfeit money trade is a relatively low-risk enterprise that offers big profits.
Federal police seized more counterfeit money from January to July 2020 than in all of 2019, according to a Domingo Espetacular report.
One of the country’s leading anti-counterfeiting organizations, the Brazilian Association to Combat Counterfeiting (ABCF – Associação Brasileira de Combate à Falsificação), works with authorities to help identify and seize counterfeit money. The director, Rodolpho Ramazzini, told Brazil news organization R7 in June that sales of counterfeit money had increased by about 20 percent during the pandemic.
One criminal network was selling between 4,000 and 10,000 fake banknotes every week, charging customers about 10 percent of the bill’s face value, according to Domingo Espetacular, which cited exclusive WhatsApp messages from a police investigation into a clandestine shop in Rio Grande do Sul.
Counterfeiters use sophisticated equipment and methods to produce banknotes virtually indistinguishable from real money. In one recent operation in Rio Grande do Sul, police seized offset printers, high-quality paper, special ink and even a machine used to forge watermarks and other security features.
To help citizens identify fake currency, the Central Bank of Brazil launched a smartphone application named Brazilian Money in 2014. Users take a photo of a banknote to verify the bill's key security features are in order.
Brazil is not the only country in Latin America where counterfeit banknotes are a boon to criminal groups. Peru and Colombia are among the countries that have seen a proliferation in the counterfeiting of US dollars. Counterfeiting in these countries has also been stoked by the demand for dollars in Venezuela, where the dollar has become the defacto currency after the Venezuelan bolívar was rendered practically worthless.