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In Depth

Counterfeit currency

Tracking the travels of your money

Last Updated November 15, 2006

It's not unusual to find hand-written notes — a phone number or a quick addition — on an old bank note.

But if you find a $5 bill with a website address written on it, you might want to take a second look. It could be possible to find out just how far this bill has travelled across Canada.

WheresWilly.com is a website that tracks individual bills as they pass through countless hands as payment and as change.

The website was created in 2001 by Hank Eskin, an American database consultant, as a Canadian spin-off of his original site for tracking American bills, WheresGeorge.com, started in 1998.

"George," of course, is George Washington, who appears on the U.S. one dollar bill. "Willy" is Wilfrid Laurier, whose portrait appears on the $5 bill.

Besides currency tracking sites in Canada, the U.K. and Europe, WheresGeorge.com has also inspired internet tracking of other objects such as disposable cameras at PhotoTag.org and books at BookCrossing.com.

Users of WheresWilly can register a bill on the site by entering its serial number and their current postal code. If the bill has been entered onto the site before, you'll see a history of where it's been and when, and can plot those points on a map.

If you register your e-mail address with the site, you'll receive a notification if one of your bills gets a "hit," if it's found and entered into the site.

All users are assigned a score based on the number of bills registered and how many hits their bills get. Users with the highest scores enter thousands of bills on WheresWilly.com.

How to score

WheresWilly.com boasts that it is nearing two million bills registered on the site worth over $29 million. About 15 per cent of those are found again and entered into the site after registration. Dedicated users can get hit rates of 30 per cent or more.

That pales, though, in comparison to the nearly 95 million bills registered on WheresGeorge.com, representing over a half a billion dollars.

Eskin says that while both sites attract the same type of people, the vast difference in size is what separates the two.

"People use WheresWilly more honestly. On WheresGeorge, there's a lot more spoofing and people who don't follow the rules," said Eskin.

Some users will attempt to fake hits on their bills to get a higher rating.

Eskin says there are many different reasons why people use his site, but there are two main draws for most people.

"One is the statistics," said Eskin, adding that some of his users keep notebooks full of numbers on how often their bills are found, and how far they travel.

The other draw is the online community that has formed around the hobby.

"I didn't set up any of that when I first put up the site. The users formed the community," he said.

Eskin says people who use his sites have independently developed a lingo for their hobby and bill-tracking games, including various forms of "bingo," such as attempting to get hits from every state or province.

People who register bills on WheresWilly.com usually indicate this on the bill somewhere so that someone else who finds it might look it up and register a hit.

Most of the time writing the web address in pen on the bill's margins will do, but for people who mark dozens of bills at a time, this can get tedious. Some mark their bills with a custom-made rubber stamp to speed up the process, while others trust their printers enough to have their computers do it for them.

Eskin insists that marking bills in this way is not against Canadian law. The American law says it's illegal to "disfigure" currency "with intent to render [it] unfit to be reissued." Another law says it's illegal to advertise on currency, which is why Eskin stopped selling WheresGeorge.com rubber stamps through his site.

Both sites carry advertising, although Eskin said it only brings in enough money to maintain the sites. WheresWilly.com is a hobby and nothing more, he said.

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RELATED

Marketplace:

Counterfeit money

CBC stories

New $10 bill designed to confound counterfeiters
Jan. 17, 2001
Bank of Canada kills $1000 bill
Sept. 26, 2000

External Links

Counterfeit:
Bank notes on the Bank of Canada site
Counterfeit detection from the Bank of Canada site
The Bank of Canada Act
The Currency Act
Tracking the travels of your money:
Where's Willy

(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)

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