You may think counterfeiting is not the problem it once was, but according to the United States Department of Treasury, an estimated $70 million in counterfeit bills are in circulation, or approximately one counterfeit note for every 10,000 in genuine currency.
As USAToday reported in January of 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials seized $900,000 in counterfeit cash – all of it in singles. The fake dollar bills were discovered at the International Falls Port of Entry in Minnesota in a rail shipment originating from China. An investigation found 45 cartons filled with singles, which were confirmed to be fake by the Secret Service.
A similar cache of fake cash from China was uncovered at Chicago’s International Mail Facility on Feb. 1. NBC 5 in Chicago reported U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized two parcels that held different denominations of counterfeit currency totaling more than $136,000. The counterfeit currency was turned over to Homeland Security and the U.S. Secret Service for investigation.These particular bills, as it turned out, were going to be used as prop money. Nevertheless, it’s still a violation of federal law to reproduce currency.
Know the Difference Between Real and Fake Bills
iTestCash is a company dedicated to helping big and small businesses throughout the U.S. and abroad. Its CEO, Alex Reichmann, comes from a family that has spent their lives focused on the protection of people’s money. His grandfather’s company invented the counterfeit detector pen that many banks and retail businesses use to identify counterfeit bills.
A counterfeit money pen contains an iodine solution that reacts with the starch in wood-based paper to create a black stain. When applied to authentic bills, the solution does not discolor the note. This is because of the fiber-based (cotton and linen) paper used in real bills.
Security thread: Looking at the bill through a light will reveal a thin vertical strip embedded in the bill containing text that spells out the bill’s denomination. In the $10 and $50 bills, the security strip is located to the right of the portrait, and in the $5, $20 and $100 bills, it is located just to the left of the portrait.
Authentic bills have microprinting in the security thread as another layer of security. Below is a list of the microprinted phrases on authentic banknotes:
- $5 bill says “USA FIVE”
- $10 bill says “USA TEN”
- $20 bill says “USA TWENTY”
- $50 bill says “USA 50”
- $100 bill says “USA 100”
Microprinting can be found around the portrait as well as on the security threads. If the microprinting is unreadable, even under a magnifying glass, the bill is probably counterfeit.
Color-shifting ink: If you hold a new series bill (except the $5 note) and tilt it back and forth, the numeral in the lower right-hand corner shifts color from green to black or from gold to green and back.
Watermark: Hold the bill up to a light to view the watermark in an unprinted space to the right of side of the bill. If the watermark is a face, it should exactly match the face on the bill. Sometimes, counterfeiters bleach lower bills and reprint them with higher values, in which case the face wouldn’t match the watermark. The watermark can be seen from both sides of the bill, since it is not printed on the bill but is imbedded in the paper.
Blurry borders, printing, or text: These are automatic red flags for counterfeit bills. Authentic bills are made using die-cut printing plates that create impressively fine lines, so they look extremely detailed. Counterfeit printers are usually incapable of the same level of detail.
Can you spot the fake bill?
The $100 bill on top is a fake seized during a counterfeit bust in Limestone County, Ala. Investigators collected $23,000 in counterfeit $100s made on a photo copier. The bill on the bottom is the real deal. Notice the muddiness of Benjamin Franklin’s image and the uneven margins of the fake $100 compared to the real one. The photo and text originally appeared in The News Courier of Athens, Ala.
All authentic dollar bills have raised printing, which is difficult for counterfeiters to reproduce. To detect raised printing, run your fingernail carefully down the note. You should feel some vibration on your nail from the ridges of the raised printing. If you don’t feel this texture, then you should check the bill further.
Ultraviolet glow: If the bill is held up to an ultraviolet light, the $5 bill glows blue; the $10 bill glows orange, the $20 bill glows green, the $50 bill glows yellow, and the $100 bill glows red – if they are authentic.
Fine line printing patterns: Very fine lines have been added behind the portrait and on the reverse side scene to make it harder to reproduce.
Red and blue threads: If you take a close look at an authentic banknote, you can see that there are very small red and blue threads woven into the fabric of the bill. Although counterfeit printers try to replicate this effect by printing a pattern of red and blue threads onto counterfeit bills, if you can see that this printing is merely surface level, then it is likely the bill is counterfeit.
Comparison: Compare the feel and texture of the paper with other bills you know are authentic.
Serial Numbers: The last thing to check on a bill is the serial number. The letter that starts a bill’s serial number corresponds to a specific year, so if the letter doesn’t match the year printed on the bill, it is counterfeit. Below is the list of letter-to-year correspondence:
- E = 2004
- G = 2004A
- I = 2006
- J = 2009
- L = 2009A
These security measures were designed not just to deter criminals from attempting to counterfeit money, but to help people and businesses recognize counterfeit money when they see it. If you see even one error that could mean a bill is counterfeit, you should report it to the U.S. Currency Education Program to protect yourself from being held liable for any losses and to inform the Federal Reserve about counterfeit bills in circulation.
If you believe you have received counterfeit money, the U.S. Treasury advises you to do the following:
- Do not put yourself in danger.
- Do not return the bill to the passer.
- Delay the passer with some excuse, if possible.
- Observe the passer’s description – and their companions’ descriptions – and write down their vehicle license plate numbers if you can.
- Contact your local police department or call your local Secret Service office.
- Write your initials and date in the white border area of the suspected counterfeit note.
- Do not handle the counterfeit note. Place it inside a protective cover, a plastic bag, or envelope to protect it until you place it in the hands of an identified Secret Service Special Agent. You can also mail it to your nearest Secret Service office.
- Remember, if you are passed a counterfeit bill and accept it, you own it. So, when accepting cash, it pays to be knowledgeable about the crime of counterfeiting.
- Report suspected counterfeit currency to your local authorities. Law enforcement agencies, banks and cash processors submit suspected counterfeit currency to the Secret Service through its US Dollars website, which only authorized users may access.
A Brief History of Counterfeiting
Counterfeiting currency has been going on since people began using money. It has been dubbed “the world’s second-oldest profession” in some quarters, and we’re not talking about wooden nickels. If you’re interested in the history of counterfeiting, iTestCash and the “History Detectives” are great websites. Here are some facts you might not know:
- Going as far back as the 5th Century Rome, Alexander the Barber was one of the first famous counterfeiters. He became so well known that instead of being punished by the ruling Emperor Justinian, he was employed by the state finance department.
- One of the first instances of counterfeiting took place in the American colonies, when Native Americans would trade shells known as wampum as a form of currency. Blue-black shells, which were rarer, had more value than their white counterparts. As a result, some traders would dye the white shells a blue-black color and pass them off at higher value.
- Shells were eventually replaced with coins made out of gold and silver. Each coin was weighted to be precisely the same, the value of the coin based on the weight. However, counterfeiters began to shave the sides of coins to collect the valuable metal, and this is why there are ridges on the outside of coins.
- Among the coin shavers were the English couple Anne and Thomas Rogers, who after being found guilty of treason, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and burned. Ouch!
In an article entitled “Money for Nothing,” Sky News tells the story of Canadian Frank Bourassa, the biggest counterfeiter in U.S. history, who in the early 2000s printed $250 million in forged American bank notes before the Secret Service finally caught up with him.
Bourassa created his fake $20 notes in a print shop he set up on a farm. He had paper made from cotton and linen in roughly the same percentages used by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and he incorporated other security measures. He sold around $50 million in forged notes before being busted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.