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Detecting Counterfeit Money

Sean Trundy

$100 Bill CounterfeitJudging by the number of Google searches devoted to it, counterfeit money continues to be a big problem. Many of the searches are variations on the theme of “Someone gave me counterfeit money, and now the bank won’t accept it - what can I do?”

The short answer is, unfortunately, nothing. Federal and state law alike address only the possession, distribution and use of counterfeit money; they are silent on recompense for the victims. Worse still, if one of the receivers of a counterfeit bill tries to use it somewhere else and is caught, they could be arrested and charged with counterfeiting themselves!

What the questioners should be asking -- but far too few of them do -- is how to detect counterfeit money before accepting it. How to avoid becoming a victim if the first place, and not have to look for ways to get compensated for fake bills. A lot of times people will recommend using ink-test pens, which actually are NOT dependable at all. We tend to forget, in a rush to cheap and easy solutions, that there are actually highly sophisticated security features built into the bills themselves. And they need nothing more than your eyes and fingers for detection.

Security Feature #1 - Intaglio Printing

Put a loop over the portrait of any bill, and you will see co-centric color-filled ridges, like ripples in a pond, bowing outward from the middle. These are the result of a specialized printing process, one that not even thousand-dollar digital machines can’t recreate. Called an “intaglio”, or engraving process, it puts the bills through engraving press plates that clamp down on the paper, and through very high pressure and temperatures etch an image.

Don’t want to bother with loop? Take a finger and drag it across the portrait area: you will be able to feel the roughness where the ridges are, compared to the smoothness in the other parts of the bill.

Security Feature # 2 - Color-shifting Ink 

Look over to the lower right corner on the front of the bill (the side with the portrait). On any bill $10 and greater, the number in the corner will seem to be in a shimmering color. They are meant to shimmer, and to change color at different angles from the eye. Viewed straight from above, the number is green; but when tilted to or fro, it will change to copper.

This is also a feature that even high-end digital printers can’t replicate. The shimmer effect comes from a type of ink used, usually referred to as “optically-variable ink”. Again, not something that you will find in stores: the ink used to make those numbers comes from only one manufacturer in Sweden, and sold only to the United States government.

$100 Guide CTA #2

Security Feature # 3 - Watermarks

Bills printed since 1996 have a watermark to the right of the portrait. Used for centuries on paper as marks of authenticity and to denote special collections, watermarks were in widespread use on European currencies before making its way across the pond. Watermarks are basically variations in the thickness of paper, made into a pattern - for instance in the $100 bill the watermark is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, the same as on the portrait. Since watermarks are a feature of the paper and not the printing process, they cannot be replicated with any desktop printer.

These are the most easily verifiable features - a cursory glance or touch of the bill should usually be enough to determine if they are present or not. But there will be times when even after checking all three, you may not be sure if the bill is genuine. Have no fear, there are a couple even more advanced features -- but you will need a little help finding them.

Advanced Security Feature #1 - Microprinting

Microprinting might well be included with the fine lines of the intaglio printing, except that it cannot be checked with just a swipe of a finger. You really will need a magnifying glass. Place it over the edge of the portraits of any bill, and you should see “The United States of America” in tiny print all the way around it. Additional microprinting appears inside the numbers on the front side of the bill. For example the five-dollar bill has “FIVE USA” printed in rows of tiny text inside the digits, and the hundred-dollar bill has “USA 100” in the lower left 100.

Advanced Security Feature #2 - UV Light Strip

The latest and most advanced security feature added to U.S. paper money is a thin strip, running with width of the bill. It is invisible to the naked eye, but lights up a solid primary color when placed under a UV light.

Counterfeiters of recent years have wised up to the fact that they cannot replicate all the security features of the paper, so they took to recycling it -- bleaching low-denomination bills, usually fives, and reprinting the hundred dollar image on there. That way engraved ridges would still be on the portrait, as would the watermark, albeit an incorrect one for the denomination.

 The UV strip was added in response to the bleach-and-reprint counterfeiting tactic. Each denomiation has a different-colored strip in a different spot along the the bill. Of course the strips are still present on bleached bills, but it is a lot easier to detect the difference between a blue strip (for a $5 bill) with a red one (for $100) or a yellow near the center (for $50).

A number of UV currency detectors are on the market, of various qualities and with varying support. When choosing one, keep in mind that it has to last: if a bulb burns out on a cheap one after a few weeks, the additional hassles and expenses will push the cost higher than a higher-end unit. Also, consider that just being able to see the strip will not alone tell you much. The location and color have to match the denomination. Unless you have very experienced cash handlers, consider investing in a UV detector that comes with a simple guide for matching strips with their proper denominations.

While it’s possible -- and even probable -- that a well-counterfeited bill will have one, or even several of these features, it will not have them all. And the ones present will likely be incorrect. Everyone who has handled cash for a while can usually sense something improper about a bill, and with this guide now have the tools to actually systematically review the bill and look for the expected security features. With any luck, nobody who reads this article will wind up on Google asking what to do with the counterfeit $100 they just took.


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