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There is a man who knows the hidden language of money. But

The Secrets of Money


One day you hear about somebody. You hear that he knows something you don't know — something about what's in your pockets. It's said that he knows the secrets of money. So you decide to go see him, to talk to him, to find out what it is he will tell you.

You make a call. You speak to someone who knows him. Oh, I doubt he will talk to you, that person says. He doesn't talk to anybody. But, that person adds, I will try. I will speak to him for you.

Days go by. More days. Finally, a phone call: He will speak to you.

You go to the Richmond Federal Reserve building downtown by the James River. You park in the oceanic parking lot and hike for what seems like miles until you get to the front door. You are met in the lobby by the person who has arranged this meeting. That person escorts you to a security desk, where your driver's license is examined; you are then issued a guest ID. You are warned to keep it pinned to your shirt.

You take an elevator down, into the lower levels of the building. You ask: How far down are we? I don't know, your guide replies. Pretty far down. Security is tight ever since the Oklahoma City bombings.

Ah. Terrorists.

Finally your elevator wheezes to a stop. You and your guide disembark. You stop at a guard station protecting a locked door. Your guide explains to the guard what you are here for. The guard tries to find the man who knows money. He can't — the man is not at his phone. So the guard tries to find other people who might know where he is. He is unsuccessful. The man who knows money is nowhere to be found.

Finally, someone comes by and lets you and your guide in through the enormous locked security door. You and your guide wend through winding hallways, through another locked security door, then another. At last you are shown to a room. In that room sits a nondescript-looking table. At the table sits a pleasant-looking man.

"Hello," he says. "What would you like to know?"

For the purposes of this interview we will call him Jack. No last names — he has a family he doesn't want to put at risk.

To your questions, Jack responds: He is 49. He has been working with money for 17 years. Mostly his job has been to program and help set up machines to examine money in the Federal Reserve to ensure it is real and not too damaged, to decide whether it should be sent back into circulation.

We are far from a cashless society, apparently. Last year the Fed's machines examined about 31 billion notes of various denominations. Four years ago they examined 23 billion.

"People like cash," he observes.

Yes, he concedes, he knows things about money only a handful of people know, things a lot of criminals would love to know. Things like the secret codes that are hidden in the money to stymie would-be counterfeiters, things the money-examining machines can see but people cannot. He has learned them because he has to program the machines to see them.

You feel confident — you've heard of those features. The new dollar bills have tiny words on them, and tiny colored threads, and ink that changes color depending on the angle you hold the bill. Are there more security features on the money you look at every day?

Jack chuckles. He says nothing. You ask again. He ponders. He weighs his thoughts carefully and looks into a corner. At last he says: "Yes. You can say that there are more."

How many more? "More. Let's just say there are more."

How many people know what he knows? Oh, perhaps 20 people in the world know what he knows. Who are they? He can't tell you. Does the president know? No, he says, but the president probably just hasn't asked.

For the next 15 minutes, he politely declines to answer most of the questions you present. And then the meeting is over. You shake hands and go back into the elevator, which wheezes and whisks you back to the lobby, where you return your guest ID. You leave the enormous building.

As you walk the long way back to your car, you pull out a bedraggled dollar bill and look at it very, very closely. George Washington stares blankly back at you. His little smile is as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa's, and his face is as opaque as ever.

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