The 8 Best Ways to Spot Counterfeit Money

Prescott Police Department
Prescott Police Department
The latest redesign of the U.S. $100 bill is set to enter circulation in October, and along with its sleeker look, the bill has new security features designed to thwart counterfeiters. For instance, some portions of the new $100 are printed in a color-shifting ink that would be extremely difficult for counterfeiters to duplicate: The Liberty Bell on the note will appear to shift from copper to green when the bill is tilted.

These changes to the bill are part of an ongoing effort to help distinguish real currency from fake. "It is a constantly evolving process of putting more and more features on the bill to allow the common citizen to detect counterfeit," said Ed Lowery, a special agent with the Secret Service.

Most of the counterfeit notes that change hands now are computer-generated, and easily distinguishable from genuine U.S. currency under a bit of scrutiny. "The process utilized to manufacture genuine notes is so detailed that there are very few systems out there that can match that level of detail in the printing," Lowery said. People who hold both a real bill and a counterfeit bill in their hands should be able to notice a difference in texture between the two notes. From there, they can go on to look at other factors that would separate the two bills.

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Though technology has made counterfeiting easier, computer-generated notes are usually of low quality and are unlikely to pass muster with an informed merchant. Nevertheless, "most people don't realize that they have counterfeit [money] until they try to make a deposit at the bank or [spend it with] a merchant," said Joe DeSantis, an assistant special agent with the Secret Service.

Bars and nightclubs are easy places to exchange counterfeit money since they aren't well lit, said Jason Kersten, an expert on counterfeiting and the author of "The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter." To combat this, many of these establishments check their bills under ultraviolet lights, which can help to detect phonies.

If you want to avoid getting stuck with a counterfeit bill, the trick is simply knowing what to look for. These are the eight best ways to spot counterfeit money.

The 8 Best Ways to Spot Counterfeit Money
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The 8 Best Ways to Spot Counterfeit Money
On a real bill, the portrait tends to stand out from the background. However, on a counterfeit bill, the portrait's coloring tends to blend too much with the rest of the bill. In addition, the portrait tends to look "lifeless and flat" on counterfeit bills, according to the Secret Service. Both DeSantis and Lowery pointed out that this difference is due to the different printing processes between real and counterfeit money. Real currency uses printing methods that cannot be replicated by anyone else.
Real bills have tiny red and blue fibers embedded in the paper, and counterfeiters have tried to replicate those. Ink marks can be printed onto the paper to look like hairs, Kersten said. He also noted that people have used cat or human hair that is dyed red or blue to embed into the bill. At close inspection, however, it is clear that the hairs are on the surface of the fake bill and not embedded into the paper. "But most people don't even look for the hairs anymore because you have to look really closely," Kersten said. "That is why the government put bigger things to look for in [the bills]."
The Secret Service points out that the serial numbers on a note must be the same color as the Treasury Seal. The agency also notes that on counterfeit bills,  the numbers "may not be uniformly spaced or aligned," although Kersten believes that this sign of a counterfeit is rare. However, one sure way to spot counterfeit bills is if several have the same serial number. "Face it, if you are running off thousands of those things, you aren't going to bother changing the serial numbers," he said.
On real currency, you will see Federal Reserve and Treasury Seals that are "clear, distinct and sharp," according to the Secret Service, whereas the seals on counterfeit bills "may have uneven, blunt, or broken saw-tooth points." One way to detect a counterfeit is by looking at the coloring. If the color of the Treasury Seal does not match the color of the serial number, the bill is fake.
The outside borders on real paper currency are "clear and unbroken," according to the Secret Service. However, the agency notes, the edges on counterfeit bills may be "blurred and indistinct." Due to the difference in printing methods between genuine and counterfeit bills, the border ink can sometimes bleed on a phony. However, this is not among the most commonly seen mistakes on counterfeit bills.
At many grocery and convenience stores, clerks will use an iodine-based counterfeiting pen. The pen reacts to the starch in the paper. If the bill is real, the ink turns yellow. But if the bill is counterfeit, it will turn a dark blue or black. "Most counterfeiters don't bother to use starch-free paper. They just use paper that simulates the color, thickness and look of real currency," Kersten said. "But if your counterfeiter is good, they will use starch-free paper."
The feel is probably the most common way that people detect counterfeit, Kersten said. Real currency has a "raised texture" to it because of the type of press used to produce the bills. Counterfeit bills feel flat because they are often made digitally or on an offset press. People who handle a lot of cash "can just notice that something doesn't feel right," Kersten said.

The watermark is the shadow of the portrait that appears when you hold the bill up to light. "That is one of the easiest ways for the common citizen to identify counterfeit versus genuine," DeSantis said. Periodically, there are people who attempt to recreate the watermark, he added, but it tends to be of very poor quality.

Counterfeiters whose bills do have watermarks are usually printing large-denomination bills on paper from small-denomination bills that they have bleached. People at stores usually only care that there is a watermark within the bill, Kersten said, but the watermark portrait must actually match the printed portrait to be genuine.

Pictured above is a forged $100 bill with a picture-perfect image of Benjamin Franklin -- but a watermark of Abraham Lincoln.


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Sources: These suggestions about what to look for to spot counterfeit money come from DeSantis, Lowery and Kersten, as well as information from the U.S. Secret Service's "Know Your Money" campaign.
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