Imagine you’ve been saving to buy a scooter. Then you make a shocking discovery. Your brother accidentally put your envelope of money through a paper shredder! Your cash is confetti.
Don’t panic. The U.S. government can replace your money. That’s according to Eric Walsh. He works for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) in Washington, D.C. The BEP is the government office that prints paper money. Walsh works for its Mutilated Currency Division. His team figures out the value of damaged cash. The BEP reimburses people who send it in.
Last year, the BEP handled about 24,000 claims. They totaled more than $40 million. A claim can take anywhere from a few hours to three years to process. “It’s a painstaking job,” Walsh told TIME for Kids. “Some of the claims are giant jigsaw puzzles.”
Each mutilated currency claim is handled by a single examiner. Cases are given a grade from 1 to 5. “Level 1 cases you can pretty much count by hand,” Walsh says. Level 5s? “They’re where someone buried currency in the yard for 20 years, and when they went to dig it up, it had petrified.”
Water and fire are the most common causes of mutilated currency. Hurricanes and wildfire can lead to an increase in claims. “The toughest cases are the burnt ones,” says BEP examiner Tina Barnett. “The notes shrink and look like Monopoly money.”
COUNTING CURRENCY The BEP's Tina Barnett uses simple tools to separate damaged bills.
COURTESY U.S. BUREAU OF ENGRAVING AND PRINTING
To make sure a bill is real, examiners use a microscope to read its fine print. Special lights help them see a bill’s security features. Otherwise, the job is “pretty low-tech,” Walsh says. “Examiners go through each note and piece it together by hand.” Often, they use nothing more than “a scalpel, some tape, some glue, maybe tweezers.”
The hard work is worth it. “For some of our customers, this is their life savings,” Walsh says. “So it’s very rewarding to be a bright spot in people’s lives.”