It has been years since the last time I saw a chop mark on American money. Last week, I was intrigued to find them on Twenty Dollar bills. Not one, not two but almost $500 worth. I was surprised for two reasons. The first is that I hadn’t seen them outside of Asia. The second reason is that I assumed they weren’t in use anymore since the United States had increased its security features on American currency. Yet, there they were on bills that the bank had just handed me.

Chop marks are marks, generally Chinese characters, used to authenticate coins, and now bills. They were used in the 18th century by Chinese merchants to authenticate the official weight of silver coins they were paid with. At the time the weight of the coin was the official value. Business transactions required weighing the coins to ensure their value was accurate. To streamline the process, merchants stamped them with their own mark to verify the money.

Somewhere along the line, Asian money changers started to stamp American $50 and $100 bills to authenticate them. When I traveled in Asia, I saw many of these marks on American money, sometimes the stamps were placed over older ones. They were always on the two largest American bills and I never saw them on the $20 bill.

That is until last week when I was handed a stack of $20 bills with the chop marks on them.

Over the years I have heard that the marks were drug dealers marking their bills. I’ve always pointed out that, that did not make any sense as the last thing drug dealers wanted to do was to create evidence pointing directly to their criminal activities. I’ve also heard variations of U.S. law enforcement using chop marks to trace illicit money back to the banking system. That also does not make sense in that law enforcement can simply just write down the serial numbers of the bills they want to trace or use high tech and invisible markings to trace it.

Asian money exchangers likely continue to use chop marks on American money as it is the most traded currency in the world and the most counterfeited. My guess is that the $20 is now marked as larger bills run afoul of money laundering across the globe. The bills I received are Series 2013, relatively new bills.

What surprises me the most is that such a low-tech system is still used to authenticate money.

It is important, however, that I point out that it is illegal to deface American money. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see the elaborate designs used for chop marks on American currency.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

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