WASHINGTON -- After months of planning and printing, the government today began circulating a redesigned, harder-to-counterfeit $20 bill.
Some lucky customers of a bank in California are getting free samples right away, but most Americans will have to wait for weeks before they see the notes spitting from automated teller machines.
The Federal Reserve's 12 regional banks began shipping 2 billion new notes -- $40 billion -- to the nation's banks, savings institutions and credit unions. But, in a statement, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan stressed, "All existing notes will continue to be legal tender."
The Fed will circulate old notes until they wear out, on average in two years. After six months, Treasury Department officials expect one in every four $20s in circulation will be of the new design, which incorporates a range of features intended to frustrate counterfeiters armed with personal computers, scanners, ink-jet printers and color copiers.
"Together, these features amount to a formidable tool, and make spotting a counterfeit note easier than ever," said Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who marked the introduction of the new notes at a ceremony. "For them to be effective, it is important that people stop for a moment to look for the new features."
Federal Reserve officials plan more than two dozen events around the country, including one in Sacramento, Calif., with Washington Mutual. The bank is giving away as much as $10,000 in new $20s in an event dubbed "WaMoola Madness."
Up to 20 people will be invited for 20 seconds to grab for bills whirling around in a glass booth. The bank will donate a matching amount to a local housing charity.
The Treasury Department has begun an $8 million public relations campaign aimed at persuading Americans to check for the new features so they're not fooled by poor-quality knockoffs.
The most obvious change is the larger and off-center portrait of Andrew Jackson, the nation's seventh president, on the bill's face. The reverse features a picture of the north side of the White House (instead of the south side seen on the old notes). To help people with poor vision, the bill's denomination appears in large dark numerals on a light background.
The government issued new $100 notes, with Benjamin Franklin, in March 1996, and new $50s, with Ulysses S. Grant, in October 1997. It plans to issue new $10 bills and $5 notes simultaneously in 2000 and a more modestly redesigned $1 bill after that.
The new $100s, $50s and $20s have a watermark in the shape of a portrait, visible when the bills are held to a light. They have an embedded plastic security thread that glows under ultraviolet light -- red for the $100, yellow for the $50 and green for the $20.
And the numeral in the lower right corner of each denomination's face is printed in color-shifting ink. It looks green when viewed straight on and black when viewed from an angle.
The new $20s -- the second-most common bill after the $1 note -- will be the first of the new design many Americans will see. It's the largest bill most people use in daily commerce and it's the bill most commonly dispensed by ATMs.
So far the introduction of the $20s is going smoothly, although Treasury officials warn that vending machines may not recognize the new bills at first. The department is working with the U.S. Postal Service, big-city transit authorities and others that have machines that take $20s.
Newer vending machines can be retrofitted by updating their computer software, while some older machines may require hardware changes. The department wrote to transit systems last week urging officials to update at least one machine per station as soon as possible.
The transit systems needing retrofits include those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Washington.
More information on the new note is available on the Internet at www.moneyfactory.com