How to Spot Counterfeit Money

Cash isn’t as popular as it used to be, but that hasn’t put counterfeiters out of business. A 2020 survey cited in a recent Federal Reserve report showed that showed U.S. consumers used cash for only 19% of their transactions. It’s harder to find actual statistics showing how much cash is counterfeit. Often, the number bandied about around the internet is $70 million, but that’s based on a 2006 report from the United States Treasury Department.

Still, it’s common to hear local news stories about counterfeit money. For instance, earlier this year, a Home Depot worker was arrested for stealing $387,500 from the company over four years — by taking real money and switching it with fake bills.

If you want to know more about how to spot fake money, here’s a look at how you should be looking at your cash.

[READ: How to Make Fast Cash.]

Evaluate the Feel of the Paper

Features to pay attention to:

— The texture.

— A crispness that should be there.

— Slightly raised ink.

This observation is based on gut instinct.

“Most counterfeits are identified by the feel of the paper,” says L. Burke Files, president of Financial Examinations & Evaluations, a firm that does investigations, risk management and other types of consulting in Tempe, Arizona.

Generally, fake money “does not have the crisp money feel and the raised feeling of the black ink on the front of the bills,” he says.

Files, who has been a financial investigator for 30 years, says that counterfeit money is a problem in all countries and throughout the world. He also says that quite a few business owners unfortunately appear to accept — and pass on — counterfeit dollars knowing they’re fake. Often, when a business owner or consumer turns in counterfeit money to the authorities, they aren’t reimbursed for that bill.

“As one person told me, it only becomes bad when someone fails to take it,” Files says. Another suggestion when you’re feeling the texture of the bill — try to tell if the ink is raised.

“Genuine currency has slightly raised ink. Therefore, you should be able to feel the texture of the ink,” says Rita Mkrtchyan, a senior finance and litigation defense attorney at Oak View Law Group with offices in Florida and California. She has advised many clients, often service industry startup companies, on how to avoid losses, including how to detect counterfeit American money.

Check for Color-Shifting Ink

Features to pay attention to:

— Color-shifting ink.

— Study the right-hand corner of the bill.

— Works with bills $10 and up.

The paper money you’re holding should change color.

“One of the easiest ways to spot a counterfeit bill is to see if the bottom right-hand corner of the bill has color-shifting ink,” says Austin Fain, the owner of Perfect Steel Solutions, a roofing contractor in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fain says that most of the company’s transactions are in cash, and since those cash transactions are often a considerable amount, he and his employees have become amateur cash experts.

“For all bills, except for the new $5 bill, you can tilt it back and forth and if the numeral in the lower right-hand corner doesn’t shift from green to black or from gold to green, then you’ve most likely been handed a fake bill,” Fain says.

Study the Watermark

Features to pay attention to:

— The watermark.

— Check the right side of the bill.

— Make sure your lighting is good.

“The watermark is a hallmark of an authentic bill,” Fain says. “On some bills it’s a replica of the face on the bill and for others it can simply be an oval spot. If you hold the bill up to the light, the watermarks should be visible on the right side of the bill. Make sure that if the watermark is a replica of the face, it matches the face exactly.”

Fain adds that if you hold the bill toward the light and there’s no watermark or if you can see the watermark even without holding it up toward the light, then the bill you’re holding is probably a counterfeit.

Look for Raised Printing

Features to pay attention to:

— Raised printing.

— Double-check the watermark and color-shifting ink.

“One of the most difficult aspects of an authentic banknote for counterfeiters to reproduce is the raised printing,” Fain says. “To detect it, all you need to do is run your fingernail slowly and carefully down the note. You’ll feel resistance from the note and some vibrations on your nail from the ridges of the raised printing.”

If you don’t feel the vibration or resistance, that’s where Fain suggests double-checking that watermark and looking for the color-shifting ink.

[READ: If You Deposit a Lot of Cash, Does Your Bank Report It to the Government?]

Check the Serial Number

Features to pay attention to:

— The serial number.

— Compare serial numbers if you have more than one suspected counterfeit bill.

You’ve probably heard that before, but what are you looking for? Mkrtchyan says that fake bills may have serial numbers that are not evenly spaced or that are not perfectly aligned in a row.

“Also, if you received multiple suspicious bills, observe if the serial numbers are the same on both bills. Clearly, if they are the same, then they are counterfeit,” Mkrtchyan says.

Look for the Fibers

Features to pay attention to:

— Look for red fibers.

— Look for blue fibers.

— Pay attention to make sure they’re actually fibers.

We think of paper money as paper, but it’s actually made of cotton and linen — and that allows the U.S. Treasury to do some pretty cool things with “paper” money.

“All U.S. bills have tiny red and blue fibers embedded in the paper,” Mkrtchyan says. “Red and blue lines should not be printed or drawn on, as is common on counterfeit currency, but should rather be part of the paper itself.”

Look for the Plastic Strip in the Bill

Features to pay attention to:

— A plastic strip that goes from the top to bottom of the bill.

— Look for “USA” on the bill.

— This only works for $5 bills and up.

There’s a lot that goes into making the money that we probably all take for granted. Mkrtchyan suggests looking for the plastic strip that goes from the top to the bottom of the bill.

“The printing will say ‘USA’ followed by the denomination of the bill, which is spelled out for $5, $10, and $20 bills but presented in numerals on the $50 and $100 bills,” she says.

The $1 and $2’s don’t have these plastic strips. Apparently there isn’t as much of a counterfeiting problem with those bills.

“These threads are placed in different places on each denomination to prevent lower denomination bills being bleached and reprinted as higher denominations. Therefore, you should compare bills of the same denomination to detect the same location of the strip,” Mkrtchyan says.

Looking for Microprinting

Features to pay attention to:

— You’re looking for microprinting, hidden on the bill.

— The microprinting are often phrases having to do with the United States.

You will need to use a magnifying glass to look for microprinting. Files suggests looking at Benjamin Franklin’s collar on the $100 bill. If you have a $50 bill, look at Grant’s collar. Look below the treasurer’s signature on the $20 bill, and on the $5 bill, Files suggests looking at the eagle’s shield. In these places, you’ll find phrases like, “The United States of America,” “USA” or “E. Pluribus Unum.”

It’s not a secret that these words appear on the bills, but microprinting is hard for counterfeiters to duplicate.

Do You Need Special Tools to Spot Counterfeit Money?

It can’t hurt to use special tools to detect counterfeit money, but, as you’ve read, you don’t need them.

There is the AccuBANKER Cash + Card Counterfeit Detector, currently $64.99 on Amazon. It offers features to help employees determine whether they’re looking at real cash or fake cash, as well as a real or fake credit card, according to the product description. It has LED lights and an integrated ruler to check the bill’s dimensions, among other features.

There are a lot of other counterfeit bill detector machines where you put the money into the machine, and it’ll determine if it’s fake or not. Prices vary wildly. You can find them for under $100, but there are many options that cost a lot more.

There are also counterfeit pens, often coming in a pack of 5 for $10, that purport to find fake bills. In theory, if you write on the money, you’ll see gold ink if the bill is good and black ink if it’s bad. You’ll find mixed reviews on products like that, however, since these pens appear to not work as well if you encounter a really well done, sophisticated counterfeit bill.

You can also find ultraviolet flashlights on Amazon and at home improvement and hardware stores, among other places.

“Place a bill on a white piece of bond paper and illuminate both with your UV flashlight,” Files says. “The paper will light up nice and bright, but authentic currency will not. Also, the denomination threads will glow a different color for each denomination, except the $1. Blue for the $5, orange for the $10, green for the $20, yellow for the $50, and reddish for the $100.”

[READ: What to Do With Cash Right Now]

What Should You Do if You Suspect You Have a Counterfeit Bill?

The U.S. Department of Treasury has some suggestions on its website, as do credit unions and banks. Some of the tips you’ll find include the following:

Don’t say anything that would put you in danger. For instance, yelling at the person who handed you the bill wouldn’t be smart if that person is prone to violence. Besides, what if you’re wrong about the person who gave you the fake cash? This might be a completely innocent and unsuspecting consumer who doesn’t know the bill is counterfeit.

Do not return the bill to the passer. You will want to hang on to that bill, and as soon as feasible, contact the police.

Take mental notes. The Treasury suggests, if you can do it safely, “observe the passer’s description — and their companions’ descriptions — and write down their vehicle license plate numbers if you can.” The police will likely want to talk to that person.

Contact the authorities. Either contact the police, the Treasury suggests, or your local U.S. Secret Service field office. You can also go to the Secret Service website and fill out a form, reporting the counterfeit money.

Don’t touch the money too much. Put it in a plastic bag or an envelope, for the authorities to collect later. This is evidence, after all, and in the unlikely event fingerprints could be detected, you don’t want to muddle things up with your own prints or damage the bill somehow. Also, the last thing you want is to accidentally mix up the counterfeit money with your real money. Separating it in a bag should prevent that from happening.

More from U.S. News

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12 Shopping Tricks to Keep You Under Budget

How to Save Money When Grocery Shopping on a Budget

How to Spot Counterfeit Money originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 07/25/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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