8 ways to spot counterfeit money

The new U.S. $100 bill is set to debut in October. Along with a sleeker, more high-tech look, the new bill has new security features designed to thwart counterfeiters. For instance, the new $100 has color-shifting ink that would be difficult for counterfeiters to duplicate. The Liberty Bell on the note will 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 from fake currency. “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 are computer-generated, which are easily distinguishable from real bills. “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, such as the watermark or serial number.

Making a counterfeit note has never been easier since technology is so readily available for counterfeiters to print fake money at home. However, these notes are usually of low quality and should be unable 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 [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 are not well lit, said Jason Kersten, an expert on counterfeiting and the author of “The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter.” In order to combat this problem, many of these establishments are looking at notes with ultraviolet lights, which can help to detect phony bills.

Stopping counterfeits can often be as easy as knowing what to look for. To find out the features one should look for when trying to detect bad notes, 24/7 Wall St. talked to DeSantis, Lowery and Kersten, in addition to using information from the U.S. Secret Service’s “Know Your Money” campaign.

These are eight ways to spot counterfeit money. Note: In the images below, the genuine bill is on the left.

1. Portrait

SecretService.govThe portraits on counterfeit money can sometimes look different from the portraits on real bills. 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. They noted that real currency uses printing methods that cannot be replicated by anyone else.

2. Federal Reserve and Treasury Seals
SecretService.govA real dollar bill will have Federal Reserve and Treasury Seals that are “clear, distinct and sharp,” according to the Secret Service. The agency points out that the seals on a counterfeit bill “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.

3. The Border
SecretService.govThe outside border on real paper currency are “clear and unbroken,” according to the Secret Service. However, the agency notes the edges on a counterfeit bill can be “blurred and indistinct.” Because of the difference in printing methods between genuine and counterfeit bills, the border ink can sometimes bleed on a phony. However, he added this was n0t among the most common way to detect counterfeit.

4. Serial Numbers
SecretService.govLooking at the serial numbers is another way to detect counterfeit money. 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 the numbers on counterfeit bills “may not be uniformly spaced or aligned,” although Kersten believes these counterfeit identifying marks are rare. One sure way, however, to spot counterfeit bills is if several bills 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.

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5. The Paper
SecretService.govReal 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].”

6. Starch
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.”

7. The Feel
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. From there, other factors can be used to determine whether a bill is counterfeit.

8. The Watermark
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. The people who do try to imitate the watermark use bleaching, Kersten said. People at stores usually only care that there is a watermark within the bill, he noted, but the watermark portrait must actually match the printed portrait to be genuine.

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