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How to Spot Counterfeit Money

Written by Nickel - 11 Comments

How to Spot Counterfeit MoneyHave you ever gotten stuck with a counterfeit bill? The LA Times recently ran an interesting story about a guy who cashed in a $1000 Postal Service money order and received ten $20 bills along with eight $100 bills in return.

Unfortunately, all eight of the $100 bills turned out to be fake. Even worse… Once the police got involved, they confiscated the bills, and he was out $800. This is generally how it works with counterfeit money — whoever has it last loses out.

How to spot fake money

In the interest of sparing you the same pain, I thought it would be worth talking about how to identify counterfeit bills. The US Secret Service has some basic tips for spotting fakes.

The portrait

The portrait on a legitimate bill should appear lifelike and stand out distinctly from the background. With counterfeit bills, the details merge with the background, which is often dark and mottled.

The seals

The points on the Federal Reserve and Treasury seals should be clear, distinct, and sharp. On a counterfeit bill, the seals my be uneven or blunt, or the points make appear broken.

The border

The fine lines in the border around the outside of the bill should be clear and unbroken. On a counterfeit bill, these lines may be blurred and indistinct.

The serial numbers

The serial numbers on your bills should be crisp and evenly spaced. They should also be printed in the exact same color as the Treasury seal. On a counterfeit bill, the serial numbers may differ in color or shade of ink from the Treasury seal, and they may not be uniformly spaced or aligned.

The paper

You may have noticed that genuine currency has tiny red and blue fibers embedded within it. Counterfeiters often try to emulate these fibers by print tiny red and blue lines on the paper. If you look closely, it will be obvious that they are printed on the surface instead of embedded within the paper.

Other counterfeit indicators

The above tips from the Secret Service are all somewhat useful, but they’re still quite subjective. If you’re looking for a more definitive test, Philip Brewer of WiseBread has some nice tips, including:

  • Color-shifting ink: Bank notes larger than $5 use color-shifting ink for the number showing the denomination in the lower right-hand corner of the bill. Look at the number straight on and then from an angle. The color should change. For example, on the $10 bill that I’m holding, it goes from green to black (newer bills go form copper to green).
  • Watermark: All bills larger than $2 now include a watermark. Hold the bill up to light and you should see it. On $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills, the image matches the portrait on the bill. This is also true of older $5 bills, but the new bills have a large numeral 5 as their watermark.
  • Security thread: All bills larger than $2 have a vertical security thread running through them. When held up to light, you’ll see a thin strip running from top to bottom. If you look closely, you’ll see that it specifies the value of the bill. For example, on this same $10 bill, it says “USA TEN” over and over.

So… Back to the original question. Have you ever gotten stuck with any counterfeit bills? If so, please share the details. How much money was at stake? How did you discover the problem? And what ended up happening?

Published on May 28th, 2010
Modified on June 3rd, 2010 - 11 Comments
Filed under: Miscellany

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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11 Responses to “How to Spot Counterfeit Money”

  1. 1
    Jo/Gaelicwench Says:

    Having worked at two different banks, I trained extensively to recognize “monopoly” money. But it doesn’t take much to see when it isn’t the real thing. The paper alone is a dead giveaway. This is particularly true for those who handle money as a constant in their jobs: Cashiers, bank tellers, are two case in point.

    Real money is practically weightless; whereas, a Jackson I once held felt absolutely “not right.” Heavier, thicker and devoid of the linen feel to it. Also, using one of those gold pens doesn’t always prove useful. The counterfeiters have managed to get around that. Holding it up to the light is also old school. Much, as you stated in your article, has been added to make it more difficult. you left out a few other significant features; the minutea of letters spelling out the name of whoever is on the bill….numbers of the value of the bill itself all located strategically…..

    It’s all about staying a step ahead of those who are trying to compete with the US Treasury. :::snicker:::

  2. 2
    Steve Says:

    The closest I came was that I got one suspicious $100 bill in a stack of 10 or so. I got the money from my bank, and took it to AAA to buy a traveler’s check with half of it. They used the gold pen on the bills I gave them (they all passed). I asked if I could use it too, and one of the bills I still had came up “positive.” Luckily I took it back to the bank and they exchanged it. It might have helped that the teller didn’t seem to have heard of the pen, so she didn’t think it meant the bill was actually counterfeit.

  3. 3
    jim Says:

    The way the paper feels is one of the most noticable differences. US currency has a special kind of paper that is not used elsewhere. It has a distinct feel that we’re all very familiar with. So if the money doesn’t feel right (weight, texture, toughness) then thats a potential sign of a fake.

  4. 4
    BG Says:

    Our currency keeps changing so quick, I have no idea what a $100 bill is even supposed to look like anymore.

  5. 5
    Bill Says:

    Bad paper’s not the issue anymore.

    Counterfeiters bleach small denomination notes ($5 bills in the article) and overprint $100 on them.

    You need to look for the strip (it has the denomination) and the watermark (is it Franklin?)

  6. 6
    Mavis Says:

    No one yet has mentioned microprinting. If you look closely, you will notice the denomination on the bill in a strange spot. On the twenty, it says “USA 20″ around the TWENTY USA USA TWENTY by the Treasury Seal, the fifty says “USA 50″ and “USA FIFTY” in only a few of the stars on the flag, the hundred says “USA 100″ in the 100 at the bottom left corner and it says “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” in Franklins shirt, and the ten says “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TEN DOLLARS USA” around the edge of the decorative border on the bill. Money is very detailed, so look close for the differences.

  7. 7
    Forkeh Says:

    For a quick check I go by feel, look, and smell. Bills have a distinctive feel. I check for all the things that should be there — watermarks and security lines. And I give it a sniff. Bill have a very distinctive smell. Now that’s not fool proof because scents can rub onto fake bills, but if the smell isn’t there, I guarantee it’s fake.

    There are a few more advanced techniques too. Get a magnet. Real bills have a lot of iron in the ink and it’s actually magnetic. Fold the bill in half, and see if you can move it with a magnet. Can’t? It’s a fake.

    Take a really close look at the color of the ink too. No printer on the market can replicate the true green of the older bills. It always ends up with a bit of blue tint to it. You get a fake side by side a real bill, and it’s obvious. And of course, you especially with hundreds you can always break out the magnifying glass and check the quote on Ben’s collar. No printer on the market can print so small. It’s hard to see, but if it’s there I guarantee the bill is real.

  8. 8
    liz Says:

    nobody has mention that the tiny blue and red fibers in the money plz excuse my spelling for i am only 11 srr

  9. 9
    john wjhiteside Says:

    I have a small retail business, over the weekend I received a 50.00 dollar bill, that was “taped”. It is a 50.00 dollar bill dated 1990, but it appears the bill was torn into 3 peices, the middle appears “different”, the borders do not match up exactly. I am searching for an actual picture of this particular bill but having no luck. The serial number is B0127064A, and Series 1990. Can anyone help me PLEASE!!!….There is also another serial number on the top right of H06870949A. CAN ANYONE PLEASE HELP ME, OR ADVISE WHERE TO FIND AND EXACT PICTURE OF THIS PARTICULAR BILL?….I have searched and searched but am having NO LUCK!!!SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!!!….THANK YOU SOO MUCH!!! SINCERELY, JOHN WHITESIDE

  10. 10
    Beth Says:

    John Whiteside… the bill is wrong. There should be two serial numbers that MATCH EXACTLY. Not two different serial numbers. Most likely they took two fifties and made a third. Most banks will exchange a bill if more than half of the bill is there. So they tear off less than one half of each fifty, exchange them for full fifties, take the parts they tore off, fix them up with a fake middle and splice them together and spend them at your shop.

  11. 11
    David Says:

    Is there an easy way to spot the old type of money used in the U.S. if there is no security thread?

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