Today’s money is hardened against counterfeiting, but it’s not immune to it. Modern digital printing technology, combined with ultra-high resolution scanners, make it easy for most people to scan or copy U.S. banknotes. However, even under ideal circumstances, the best commercially-available scanners still can’t capture all of the fine details embedded into a real bill.
On top of that, some security measures aren’t printed, they’re physical attributes unique to the bill.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a professional to detect a fake. U.S. Government has implemented several security features that make it somewhat easy (or easier than it used to be) to detect them:
The Depth of Field
All portraits on U.S. currency show amazing detail and depth of field. The faces on bills, for instance, stand out from the background.
If you look closely at any U.S. bill, you will notice that the shading a profile of the portrait is made distinct from the rest of the bill. On some bills, it looks almost “3D”-ish.
Because the type of printing presses, and ink, used for making banknotes are impossible for the average person to come by, and technically challenging for anyone to use, most counterfeiters use computer-printed counterfeits.
The texture on these fakes, however, doesn’t allow for the same type of contrast, and thus, a lack of depth of field on the notes. This is because real U.S. currency uses printing methods that cannot be reproduced by anyone else.
There are embedded blue and red fibers on real U.S. banknotes. On fakes, counterfeiters often use dyes or real hair that’s dyed to try to replicate this feature. The dyed fabrics or hair are then placed on the top layer of the bill.
This tactic often fails because the fibers can’t be embedded into the bill, and real currency has fibers that are physically part of the bill. It would require a special multi-step layering process, which is usually too expensive for counterfeiters to employ – the cost of faking the bill would outstrip the face value they’re printing.
The Serial Numbers
The serial numbers on a Federal Reserve bank note must be the same color as the Treasury Seal. For amateur counterfeiters, it’s something that’s easy to overlook and easy for most people to spot. On fakes, the numbers may not be uniformly spaced or aligned properly. One way to spot fakes is to check multiple bills from the same set of bills. They may have the same serial number because it’s more technically challenging to generate new numbers for each and every bill.
The Seal Of Approval
Real currency has a Federal Reserve and Treasury Seals that are clear and sharp. Counterfeit bills won’t have this, or the coloring may be slightly “off.” The seals may also be uneven, blunt, or have saw-tooth points.
Look for colors that don’t match, or colors that seem different from a known good and legitimate bill.
The Clean Border
Real bills use a special, proprietary, printing process. Part of this process involves fixing the color on the bill so that it doesn’t bleed out to the edge. This isn’t usually a problem for high-end printers. However, for low-quality reproductions made by amateur counterfeiters, this can be difficult to do, so fakes may have color that fades or bleeds into the edges of the paper.
Corners and edges on real bills are also clean cut. Fakes may not be able to replicate this.
The Paper Quality
One way to test the legitimacy of currency is to mark it with an iodine-based counterfeiting pen. If the bill is real, the ink turns yellow. If it’s a fake, it will turn a dark blue or black. That’s because real bills are made of starch-free paper, while some counterfeiters don’t bother replicating this aspect of real bills.
Real bills have a raised texture because of the printing process. You should be able to feel the relief on the bill. Counterfeit bills are flat because they use either digital printing or an offset printing press.
This is a very difficult thing to reproduce in a counterfeit bill. The watermark is the shadow of the portrait that appears when you hold it up to light.
Some counterfeiters use real bills, bleach them, and then create a new bill from the old one. The counterfeiter assumes that the individual will only look to see that there is a watermark, but won’t inspect it or match it up with the portrait on the bill.
When counterfeiters scrub bills, they typically use low denomination bills to make higher denomination ones. For example, they may try to turn a $1 bill into a $20, $50, or even $100 bill. The problem with this is that the watermark will still show the original face or portrait of the bill. If the watermark doesn’t match the face of the bill, it’s a fake.
Genuine serial numbers have a distinctive style and are evenly spaced. The serial numbers are printed in the same ink color as the Treasury Seal. On a counterfeit, the serial numbers may differ in color or shade of ink from the Treasury seal. The numbers may not be uniformly spaced or aligned.
Counterfeiting currency isn’t new. For as long as criminals have desired the unearned, there have been unscrupulous businessmen and individuals who have attempted to counterfeit their way to riches.
Counterfeiting In Colonial Times
Counterfeiting is a serious crime – so serious that, in 1790, is was made punishable by death. But, even before America was America, the death penalty for counterfeiting wasn’t unheard of. In 1645, Virginia attempted to fight counterfeiting by changing the face of its currency every year. “Delinquents” were to be put to death.
Coin clipping was also a common way to defraud people during this time. Silver or gold coins were common currency during colonial times, but the problem was that the coin edges of handmade coins were smooth.
Unscrupulous traders and individuals would shave off bits of the metal from coins that passed through their hands until they had collected enough raw material to sell them as bullion. This was an early form of inflating colonial currency, since the stated value on the coins wouldn’t necessarily reflect the intrinsic value of the metal.
In 1662, England fought this practice by using machines to give coins a milled edge, similar to the ridged edges you see today on coins. The milled edges helped reduce shaving, since it would be obvious when a coin had been defaced or clipped.
However, even though counterfeiting British currency was outlawed, most currency in the colonies was foreign. And, there weren’t strong laws against counterfeiting foreign currency – at least not initially.
And, even then, there were few, if any, laws against counterfeiting in other countries. For example, Ireland had no law against manufacturing American coin and currency.
When bills of credit were introduced, these too were subjected to counterfeiting. This time, it was Britain that was doing the counterfeiting. To crush the growing sense of independence in the colonies, England advertised in New York’s Tory newspapers, “Persons going into other Colonies may be supplied with any Number of counterfeit Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.”