Seven Tips to Help Identify Counterfeit American Money
A Rapid Transit employee tells how to spot bogus bucks
The United States government estimates that less than one-hundredth of one per cent (0.01 %) of the paper money in circulation is counterfeit. Does this figure seem high or low? Who would know?
Well, maybe I would. I’ve worked at the local department of regional transit, sorting and counting paper money taken in by bus drivers and light rail machines, so maybe I have a good idea how much counterfeit money is being circulated. As far as I can tell, the aforementioned percentage seems accurate. Every day, out of tens of thousands of dollars of currency collected, we find on the average half a dozen or more bogus bills.
Fake $5 and $10 bills are received the most, and some $20 bills have been passed as well. Amazingly, even $1 and $2 counterfeit bills are circulated, which the government doesn’t expect, because such money is not supposed to be worth the paper on which it’s printed!
Keep in mind, knowingly passing counterfeit money is a felony, yet many people still do it just to pay for a bus ride. Imagine that!
Also, some counterfeit money is so bad the reverse side of the bill was left blank!
Interestingly, during colonial times counterfeiters were severely punished. Many were hanged and at least one woman was burned at the stake!
Let’s find out how to spot counterfeit currency. You could become an expert in just a few minutes. Here’s your step-by-step guide:
1. Feel the texture of the bill
The composition of the paper used to make Federal Reserve Notes is supposed to be a secret; therefore, the paper is not commercially available. But it’s common knowledge the paper - actually more of a fabric - is about 75 per cent cotton and 25 per cent linen.
So when you get a questionable bill, run your fingers over it. Does the paper have crispness, gloss and elasticity, like all good American paper money? Or does it feel like common writing paper? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then you’ve got nothing but waste paper!
Security pens can be purchased to check the authenticity of the paper. You simply rub the pen on the bill and a dark brown or gray color means the money is counterfeit, while a gold color means it's genuine. But at regional transit we rarely use such a pen, as we’re accustomed to the “feel” of genuine U.S. greenbacks. During our high-tech age, this is still the easiest way to spot bogus bills!
Also, the printing on genuine American “frogskins” has a raised feel to it, due to the intaglio printing process used by the feds.
Be that as it may, according to an article on the Newhouse Communication Center, in early 2011 fake $100 bills were in circulation in Central New York. Since these bills were made from bleached-out $5 bills, the paper was genuine. Keep your eyes out for those impressive fakes!
2. Compare bills of similar denominations and series (or date)
If you find a questionable $20 bill, for instance, take another genuine twenty with a similar series or date and then compare the features of both. Everything should match, of course. Incidentally, all denominations except, $1 and $2, have been redesigned at least once since 1990.
3. Look for the quality of printing on the bill
The quality of printing on many counterfeit bills is impressive. Crooks use scanners and color inkjet printers to make their phony "lettuce." Nevertheless, the printing on genuine U.S. paper money is always sharp and clearly defined. If you find fuzzy or smeared letters or numbers, then you’ve identified an American BS bill!
4. Look for blue and red fibers
Take a magnifying glass, and look for blue and red fibers in the paper of the bill. These fibers should actually be within the paper, not on top of it. Some counterfeiters have actually painted on such fibers. Can you believe it?
5. Study the serial numbers
Make sure the serial numbers on bills are evenly spaced and properly aligned. Also, if you get a number of bills of the same denomination, look to see if they all have the same serial number. No two bills should have the same serial numbers. Counterfeiters will often try to pass a wad of their fake bills at one time, with each bill having the same serial number!
6. Watch for security features
All bills, except for the $1 and $2 denominations, have security features such as the following:
Polyester security strips
Many bills have a plastic security strip running from top to bottom, with the denomination of the bill imprinted on the strip. These strips are placed in a different position on each denomination to discourage counterfeiters from using smaller bills to make larger denominations. Also, when viewing under a black light, these strips will glow a different color for each denomination.
Moreover, these security strips have a magnetic element, which counting machines try to detect during the process of authenticating genuine bills.
Watermarks are ghost images seen to the right of the portraits on each bill. (It helps to hold the bill up to the light to see these images.) Denominations of $10, $20, $50 and $100 have had watermarks included since 1996, whereas the $5 bill has had them since 1999. These watermarks show a ghost image of the portrait or the number of the denomination. Only the very best counterfeit money will include watermarks!
Bills made since 1996 have color-shifting ink. Simply tilt the bill under a light source and notice how the color changes from green to black or copper to green.
Since 1990, bills of $5 denomination or higher now include micro-printing, which can be found in different places on each denomination. When studying suspect money, if this micro-printing is what and where it’s supposed to be, it should also be very easy to read; otherwise, you’ve got funny money!
Some genuine bills have intaglio (raised) images or numbers. The current $10 bill is an excellent example of this tactic. Look in the lower right-hand portion of the bill, astride the serial number, where the liberty flame and the number 10 can be found. This is a texturally pleasing aspect of this altogether pretty greenback!
The new one hundred dollars bills, also known as Benjamins, have a blue security ribbon running from top to bottom through the center of the bill. As you tilt the bill, thousands of microlenses in the ribbon reveal tiny Liberty Bells, and then these images transform to a “100” pattern, if the bill is tilted again.
7. Beware: bills can be altered after printing
Bills can be changed somewhat after the printing process. I’ve seen $5 bills, in particular, on which somebody, using a pen or pencil or whatever, added a security strip and/or watermark! Some of these fakes can look convincing, without a closer look, which usually exposes them as bogus. Always remember the security strip should glow in UV light and always be arrow straight.
The war against counterfeiting will continue as long as currency is circulated. In the U.S. at least, the federal government seems to be winning the war, since the rate of counterfeiting is very low and will probably stay that way unless crooks can gain a technological advantage of some kind.
As for the $5 bill at the top of the article, the author can’t tell if it’s fake or genuine. Maybe somebody simply added “artwork” to a greenback, or it could be waste paper. You make the call.
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© 2012 Kelley