Meet our writers


Money December 2012

Dollar Sense

Counterfeit Bills Are Everywhere, Especially During and Just after Holiday Season

By Teresa Ambord

Turn the bill over. Hard to believe, but thieves sometimes work hard to make one side of a high-value bill look genuine and do little or nothing to the backside.

Do you know the feel of a real twenty dollar bill? There’s nothing like slipping your hand into the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn for a while, and finding money you’d forgotten about. You know it by touch even before you look at it. The feel is recognizable because of the fiber-embedded paper U.S. currency is printed on. Unfortunately as sophisticated technology becomes cheaper and more accessible to counterfeiters, that “feel” may not be the good indicator of genuine currency that it once was.

Is this a big deal? The slow economy is making thieves bolder by the day. And the holiday season is prime time for counterfeiters to introduce fake currency into circulation. Cashiers are busy and less likely to notice odd bills. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or south Florida you need to be especially alert, as these areas are generally the hardest hit. Last year law enforcement in three Florida counties – Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe — reported $60,000 to $80,000 a week in fake bills, and that was before the holidays when counterfeiting always heats up.

Authorities warn us, when shopping in busy stores, be extremely cautious if a bill you are given looks even slightly unusual. Cashiers are likely to be overwhelmed. Many retailers still rely on pens that are supposed to detect fake money. Unfortunately, those pens have become less reliable since counterfeiters began “washing” real bills of low value – like ones and fives -- to create higher value currency like 50s and 100s. That’s why law enforcement urges us to go farther.

Here are some additional tips from a seasoned teller and from the U.S. Secret Service.

    1. Turn the bill over. Hard to believe, but thieves sometimes work hard to make one side of a high-value bill look genuine and do little or nothing to the backside. They watch for a cashier that is busy, lay the bill good side up on the counter and slide it to the cashier, who may not even look at the other side. The back of the bill may have blotches of ink, odd colored ink, or actually be totally blank.


    1. Repeat serial numbers. One teller found numerous counterfeit bills in one cash deposit. He thought one of the bills looked irregular so he took a closer. Several of the bills had the exact same serial number, which never happens with genuine legal tender. Also genuine serial numbers have a distinctive style and are evenly spaced. The numbers should be the same color as the Treasury seal just above the numbers. Counterfeit serial numbers may be a slightly different color and may appear misaligned or unevenly spaced.

      Also, take a look at the number on both sides of the bill to be sure they match. Failing to match the numbers is a rookie mistake, the teller said, but it happens.


    1. Newer style bills. Since the government has been changing the look of bills, counterfeiters are working to reproduce those new designs (even though they have built- in features that are intended to thwart reproduction). Thieves know that most of us are far less familiar with the look and feel of the newer bills, so we are less likely to spot the fakes. That doesn’t mean you can assume the older bills are real – give them a good look too.


    1. The light test. Don’t be embarrassed to hold a bill up to the light. Cashiers do it all the time. The light test can reveal many flaws. Look for a security strip, and read the strip. It should list the denomination, though in tiny type. As noted above, counterfeiters may have washed bills of lower value and made them appear to be 50s or 100s. If you’re holding a $100 bill that says “ten” or “one” on the strip – you’ve got a fake bill. And of course if there is no strip, you have plain old paper. Also holding the bill to the light could show some flaws in the ink, like bleeding.


    1. Does it feel real? The paper that real currency is made of is not easy to recreate. But as mentioned before, the counterfeiters may have started with lower denomination real bills. For one thing, if a bill does not feel normal, rub your fingers along the edge to see if it seems odd. If it does, check to see if it has a security strip.


    1. Lifelike portrait. The Secret Service website says that the portrait on real currency is lifelike, standing out from the background. Pull a real bill out of your wallet and take a look. On counterfeit bills the portrait is often flat and lifeless.


    1. The paper. Real currency paper has tiny red and blue fibers embedded throughout, according to the Secret Service. Thieves try to simulate these fibers by printing tiny red and blue lines on their paper, but a close look will show that these lines are on the outside, not embedded in the paper.


    1. The seals. On real currency the Federal Reserve seals have points that are sharp and distinct. Counterfeit bills may have seals with points that are blunt and uneven.


  1. The border. The borders of genuine bills are clean and unbroken, whereas on counterfeit bills they may be blurred and indistinct.

Law enforcement warns us that we may be our own best defense when it comes to spotting fake bills. When the cashier hands you currency, don’t just shove it in your wallet. Take a few seconds to look it over. If you think you've been given a counterfeit bill call the cashier’s attention to it immediately. You can also call the U.S. Secret Service's 24-hour hotline at 305-863-5050.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa