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7 Tips to Help Identify Counterfeit American Money

Kelley worked for six months at Sacramento Rapid Transit, where he sorted paper money and ran the bill-counting machine.

$10 bill with security strip (top to bottom, right of center)

$10 bill with security strip (top to bottom, right of center)

A Rapid Transit Employee Explains How to Spot Bogus Bucks

In a 2006 study of the paper money in circulation, the U.S. Department of the Treasury estimated that about one note in 10,000 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 of 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 average, half a dozen or more bogus bills.

What Denominations Are Commonly Counterfeited?

In my experience, 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! Interestingly, during colonial times, counterfeiters were severely punished. Many were hanged, and at least one woman was burned at the stake!

How to Spot Counterfeit U.S. Currency

Some counterfeit money is so bad that the reverse side of the bill is left blank! Other fakes are harder to spot, though. Let’s find out how to identify 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 percent cotton and 25 percent 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 viewed 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: 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!
  • Color-Shifting Ink: 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.
  • Micro-Printing: 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!
  • Intaglio Images: 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!
  • Security Ribbons: The new one hundred dollar 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.
  • Security threads: The one hundred dollar bills also include a nearly invisible security thread to the left of the portrait of Benjamin Franklin. This thread is embedded in the bill, not printed upon it. The thread is imprinted with the letters "USA" and the number 100 and is visible on both sides of the bill, and the thread glows pink under ultraviolet light.

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 Ongoing Fight Against Counterfeiting

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.

At any rate, in the present day, November 2021, it seems possible to purchase counterfeit money online. You can buy $20 or $100 banknotes, and the advertising says the bills look genuine and can be used to purchase anything, though they’re only designed to last for one year. Do they disappear after 365 days? And are these purchases legal in the US?

It seems just about anything can be purchased on the internet!

Please leave a comment.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 Kelley Marks


Kosmo on September 21, 2016:

Thanks for the comment, James Bergman. If you don't trust your sense of touch, look for the security strips and water marks on American money - they're very hard to fake!

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on September 22, 2013:

Videos are good, Naeem Khan, but I think my text suffices - at least in this case. Later!

Naeem khan on September 22, 2013:

Well information

But it would be much better if videos shown too

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 23, 2012:

Those pens used to authenticate money will show a gold color if the paper is genuine. Black or brown colors indicate the bill is fake. Also keep in mind that a bill from 1950 will have no security features - no security strip or watermark, so you can't look for those. My guess is that somebody used a scanner to copy an old bill and then passed it, thinking nobody would suspect someone passing a counterfiet greenback from 1950. I'd have to see it to be sure, but it's probably bogus. Hope I helped you. Later!

annonimous on October 23, 2012:

i have a $10 bill from 1950 and i took it to the store and turned light brown/not black.. and they didn't want to take it... i got @ college.. what should i do, or it's a fake bill??

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on September 25, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, vinayak1000. It's been fun learning about counterfeit money while earning a paycheck. Later!

vinayak1000 from Minneapolis on September 25, 2012:

very comprehensive indeed

kjforce from Florida on July 22, 2012:

ahh..but I did take remaining bills back to bank..they are required to confisgate...HOWEVER..they are not required to reimburse customer.REGARDLESS...due to the fact it could be a scam.....had I immediately BEFORE LEAVING BANK in the beginning, had any inclination they were bad they would have exchanged the $..LIKE I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THAT !!!!

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 18, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, rwelton. I'm glad you appreciate the article.

As for you kj force, I'm sorry you got some bogus bills from the bank. I think you should have returned them to the bank that gave them to you and raised hell if they hadn't taken them back. Banks should know better than to pass funny money! Also, I wouldn't give counterfeit money to a street person or anyone elese. Thanks for stopping by. Later!

kjforce from Florida on July 18, 2012:

Kosmos...thank you..I wish I had read this before going to Key West...went to my bank before leaving on vacation ( many small private owned shops/roadside) do not take credit cards...Spent $ along the way..finally went to a produce stand where the owner scanned my $IT WAS BOGUS ! I ask him if he would check a few more...they were ALL bogus..( my bank issued them )..dilemma do I return them to bank and loose all OR just try to pass them on ? I chose to pass on...even gave to a couple street people....Bad idea I know...oh well...think I'll do a hub...

rwelton from Sacramento CA on July 17, 2012:

Should be required reading for all retailing staff.


Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 17, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, Paul Kuehn. My current job has me working with counterfeit money. You gotta love it! Later!

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on July 17, 2012:

This is a very awesome hub, and you certainly know how to identify counterfeit money. I certainly hope I never get stuck with a bad bill, but I certainly know now what to check for if a large note seems suspicious. Voted up and sharing.