Foiling Counterfeiters

In the nearly one year since the September 11 terrorist attacks, “security” has become the buzzword of American society. It even has surpassed “digital” as the hot topic across some segments of the printing and packaging industry.

That's because the need to authenticate even relatively common official “documents,” such as drivers' licenses, suddenly has become paramount to law enforcement agencies everywhere. The multi-billion dollar market in counterfeit products also has driven the same need for product integrity among manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, liquors, and upscale consumer goods.

That's why optically variable devices (OVDs) ultimately will become more common than credit cards in America and the euro currency in Europe. In fact, they would have to: Those are already the two biggest users of OVDs in the world, with both carrying OVDs as one of their primary security devices. And more users are on the way.

In addition to credit cards and European currency, OVDs increasingly can be found on tobacco products in China; pharmaceuticals, wine, and spirits in Europe; and across an even broader range of products in North America. Other markets already exist, and more will follow as the word “secure” becomes more important to consumers than “new and improved,” according to manufacturers.

“Certainly the events of September 11 have created a greater sense of urgency around the need to secure identification documents, such as drivers licences, passports and travel visas, and financial instruments such as banknotes,” says Oliver Moesgen, sales and marketing manager/security products for Charlotte, NC-based Kurz Transer Products, a member of the Kurz Group, one of the world's largest manufacturers of OVDs. “But sophisticated OVDs produced by the Kurz Group have been used for many years in high security and commercial security applications in the United States and around the world.”

“Before 9/11, everyone in the United States felt extremely secure,” says Johns Halotek, director of marketing for ITW HoloPak, a division of ITW. “Now, everyone is interested in at least finding out what advanced security features are available. The people who benefit from the more sophisticated technologies are in security (related areas), where you're always interested in using a technology that is closely held and has limited supply. If you're manufacturing a high-end brand, or you're a government that is seeking to secure a product or a document, you're going to go with the OVD.”

An effective OVD is designed using a number of advanced computerized techniques that generally combine visually appealing art, such as the intertwined globes or the flying eagle found on Mastercard and Visa credit cards, with a number of both overt (easily visible) and covert (hidden) security features. The more complex the security features, the more difficult the OVD is to replicate, or counterfeit.

“The authentication is also very important,” notes Moesgen. “You want something that is easy to verify, easy to communicate, hard to duplicate.”

OVDs can be attached to a number of substrates, most likely foil, but also polyester and other film substrates. Typically they are created with a hot stamping unit. Yet, despite their similarities, not all OVDs are created equal.

“A hologram is an OVD, but an OVD isn't always a hologram,” explains Halotek. “Optically variable devices are specific devices that optically reflect light to create a look or an image. The difference is the level of sophistication is much higher with an OVD.”

For its part, a hologram can be created by exposing a photoresist plate with a monochromatic laser. It can be done with easily obtainable tools like a laser, a laser table, and a three-dimensional sculpture. The more advanced OVD is digitally mastered using a computer-guided laser, and it can contain a number of distinct security features combining text and images that go unseen by the naked eye.

According to Holopak, one of the world's largest suppliers of security hot stamping foils, a properly designed OVD typically carries three levels of verification:

  • The first carries an easily detectable security element that can be verified with minimal training and simple tools, either with direct sight or by using a magnifying glass.

  • At the next level, an inspector using relatively simple tools, such as a small microscope, pocket laser beam of light, or a portable ultraviolet (UV) light, can determine the authenticity of the security device.

  • The final level of verification provides the most sophisticated security. The authenticity of this device is confirmed by a senior forensic specialist utilizing lab equipment and specialized testing devices.

“The type of security approach that we advocate, and that most responsible security companies advocate, is a multi-layer approach,” says Adam Scheer, VP of corporate development for ABNH. “And a hologram is so versatile that it can be incorporated into a number of different approaches. That's really where the hologram is going.”

Where OVDs Have Been
A Hungarian researcher produced the first hologram in the mid-1940s, but it had one fatal flaw: It could only be seen under a light frequency that matched the wavelength of the hologram itself. White light was ineffective, and ultimately, so were the earliest holograms. They didn't become commercially viable until technology was developed that allowed the 3-D image to be seen under white light.

One early OVD manufacturer was American Bank Note Holographics (ABNH), which was formed more than 30 years ago after the advent of the Xerox color copier. The then-president of American Bank Note felt that “the best way to thwart the potential impact of the color copier” on currency counterfeiting would be through the use of holograms, which would appear black on a copy of the bill.

“If the hologram was going to be practical, it had to be more than a novelty item that required a lot of work to produce,” notes Scheer. “It had to be something that maintained the robust security of the holographic image, but still be inexpensive enough for use by someone who wanted to purchase billions of units.”

The US Bureau of Printing and Engraving, just such a potential user, ultimately decided the color copier didn't pose enough of an overwhelming counterfeiting threat to necessitate a change in the design of the dollar. Visa and Mastercard, however, the two largest producers of “plastic currency,” immediately realized the security benefits that holograms could bring to the credit card industry — where cards are issued by hundreds of different banks and the US Secret Service estimates the average fraud on a credit card is $20,000. Today, that industry uses billions of holograms a year as an added security measure.

“Visa and Mastercard were having huge problems with people counterfeiting their cards, and at the time there was no real standard for cards,” explains Scheer. “With a dollar bill, for example, people who are trained know to look for the specific security features incorporated into the bill, and all dollar bills look more or less alike. That wasn't true for credit cards, and it still isn't true today. So, we convinced those companies to make the hologram a standard feature across all of their cards that would enhance brand identity and security.”

Moesgen agrees that holograms, as the first true OVDs, provided a level of security unseen before, particularly for products like credit cards. “Unfortunately,” he says, “standard holography took a path which is not most favorable for security applications: it got commercialized.”

Indeed, both libraries and the Internet are chock full of detailed descriptions on how to build, buy, or borrow holograms and hologram technologies. A search of the word “holograms” on a popular search engine like yields nearly 33,000 references. (Conversely, a search for “OVDs” returns few if any relevant responses.) Among the first listings for holograms, however, is one entitled, “Intro to Holography & Holokids,” which instructs readers on how to “make a 3D hologram in your home … for kids of all ages.” Another site offers “Security Hologram Specials” where an overstock of security holograms can be purchased “for up to 75% off regular low prices.”

Sound totally secure? Not even the manufacturers themselves can guarantee that. But they add it's doubtful that holograms purchased over the Internet or created on your kid's PC ever would be sophisticated enough to meet the standards of an OVD with multiple security features, and therefore would unlikely be confused with one. Even with secondary features, such as dot matrix printing, added to the counterfeit hologram, it's still shouldn't fool the pros.

Scheer notes holograms have a high resolution of more than 25,000 scratches/inch, while the most sophisticated commercial imaging technology has less than 10,000, making counterfeits more easily detectable.

“So, it's very sophisticated,” Scheer says of hologram creation. “It has a lot of resolutions to it. That allows you to make very microscopic designs within the hologram that are not obvious to you and me with the naked eye, but that law enforcement will know where and how to look for.”

For example, Kurz and ABNH develop OVDs containing sophisticated “nano-text” that can only be seen through an electron microscope and whose existence is known only to agencies like the Secret Service.

“Holograms still represent a complex technology,” says Moesgen. “But with the resources available today, there is a fairly low barrier to entry. If brand owners or document providers are concerned about current or potential exposure to counterfeiting, it's important for them to recognize there are more effective and viable solutions available. That's where the most advanced and proprietary OVDs, such as the Kinegram and Trustseal come in, allowing one to truly raise the bar and enhance the level of security provided.”

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