Ever go into a drug store or local business and find that the cashier colors on your twenty dollar bill with a marker? Well, she’s not just playing with markers like an errant two year old. She’s testing your bill to see if it’s counterfeit.
Although counterfeiting is not the problem it was in 1865 when the Secret Service was established (in part to minimize this problem) people occasionally still try to reproduce money on their home laser printers. These special pens, which you can buy at your local office supply for around $4, contain an iodine solution. This solution reacts with wood-based papers — such as you might put in a copy machine — but not with the fiber-based papers used by the U.S. Treasury (which is under the direction of the Federal Reserve).
If you ever find a briefcase full of money, and you want to know if it’s real, using one of these markers is probably the fastest way to do the job. But if you just want to check the bills in your wallet, here are a few things to look for.
On an authentic bill, the portrait will stand out from the paper. It will have a more three-dimensional look. Always compare your suspicious bill with one you know to be the real McCoy. The portrait on the fake bill will look flat in comparison.
The borders, scrollwork and seals on a good bill will be crisp, clear, and precise. The lines will be unbroken. The saw-tooth points on the seals will be pointed with none broken or blunt. Again, compare two bills for reference. On a counterfeit, the artwork will appear muddy or unclear and the lines may have broken areas.
The Serial Numbers
The ink color of the serial numbers should match that of the seals. Also, the digits that make up the serial number should be evenly spaced and of the same style or font. A counterfeit bill may have crooked digits that are unevenly spaced.
Genuine U.S. Treasury bills are printed on paper made of fibers, not wood pulp. Embedded in it are tiny red and blue fibers. Counterfeiters will try to imitate this by printing red and blue lines on their paper. A close examination will tell you if the red and blue lines you see are in fact printed on, or embedded.
The Security Features
Except for one and two-dollar bills, special security features have been implemented to make it harder to counterfeit. To easily spot a fake, look for the following features:
In 1990, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began embedding a thread in bills $5 and up. This thread can be seen when holding the bill up to the light. On it you can read the printing on the thread. It will read “USA” followed by the bill’s denomination — spelled out for $5, $10, and $20 bills but in numerals for $50 and $100.
Also, this thread is located in different positions for different denominations so that lower denominations cannot be bleached and reprinted as higher denominations. Holding the bill up to a black light will cause the security thread to glow—each denomination a different color.
Hold the bill up to the light to reveal a watermark. It will be either another portrait of the one on the front of the bill or a number representing the denomination. Located to the right of the portrait and visible from both sides, it will be on 10, 20, 50, and 100 dollar bills printed since 1996 and on 5 dollar bills printed since 1999.
Tilt the bill to see if the ink appears to change color. This feature appeared on 20, 50, and 100 dollar bills in 1996 and on $10 bills in 1999. It does not appear on $5 or smaller.
With a magnifying glass, examine the bill for micro-printing. This extremely tiny print will appear in various places, depending on the denomination and year printed, on bills $5 and up printed since 1990. If a counterfeit bill has micro-printing it will appear as poor quality. Just as with the artwork, real micro-printing will always be crisp, clear, and legible.
Folks in the banking industry, retail sales, or other occupations which deal with large sums of cash will get a “feel” for the real deal just by handling money all day. But living in an age of direct deposit, automatic funds transfers, and debit cards, the rest of us don’t handle money like we used to. So if you hear of a counterfeiting issue in your area, you might want to take the time to study a few bills.
Have you ever handled a counterfeit bill? Tell us your story!