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How do I Spot Fake Money?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Counterfeiting, or the production of fake money, has been a problem virtually since the first currencies appeared in the world. In the ancient world, base metals would be combined with more valuable silver and gold in order to cheat people, or the edges of valuable coins would be shaved off to reclaim some of the precious metal. In the modern world, a host of innovations on the parts of governments have been implemented to try to put a stop to the production and use of fake money, but as quickly as security features are implemented, counterfeiters set to work coming up with ways to circumvent them.

Spotting fake money that is made by a expert counterfeiter can be virtually impossible for the average person. Luckily, the majority of fake money in circulation is of a relatively poor quality, and can be caught by using some of the safeguards implemented by governments. Each government has different security measures in place to help citizens detect fake money. As an example, there are a number of ways to recognize fake US currency.

The United States was historically fairly behind the times in terms of anti-counterfeiting measures, after originally designing a strong currency. Throughout the 1980s, many European countries adopted a slew of anti-counterfeiting devices in their currency, while the United States did not change much. This all began to change in the mid-1990s, as a series of new tactics was unveiled.

In 1996, the $100 US Dollar (USD) bill was the first to be redesigned. In 1997 the $50 USD bill followed suit. Next came the $20 USD bill in 1998, then the $10 USD and $5 USD bills in 2000. In 2003 the $20 USD bill once again changed, in 2004 the $50 USD bill changed again, in 2006 the $10 USD bill changed again, and in 2008 the $5 USD bill changed again. Each of these changes was accompanied not only by superficial changes to the design, but by a host of modern security procedures.

First and foremost, look at the money you’re holding to see if it is crisp and clear, or if it is at all blurred. Modern bills are incredibly sharp, and have a vivid, lifelike depth to them. The portraits should appear clean, the borders should have no smudging, the serial numbers should be evenly spaced, and the seals should have sharp points on the teeth. Next, examine the color of the paper, as real US currency has small threads of red and blue running through the paper, not simply printed on top of the paper.

Another thing you want to check for when looking for fake money is the feel of the currency itself. If you’re not paying attention, you may not notice the difference, but if you focus on it, you can often tell the difference between fake money and real money just by the lesser quality paper, and the lack of slightly raised ink. In fact, the feel is such an excellent way to detect fake money that the government has not changed the feel of the paper, even through all of the other changes, so that the intuitive sense people have from decades of handling bills can still guide them true.

All bills other than the $1 USD and $2 USD bill have a security thread embedded in them, and if you hold one up to the light you can read it. It should say USA, followed by the denomination of the bill, which can help you identify fake money that has had its denomination switched. Each bill also has a watermark on it, with the same face that is on the bill itself. In a black light, bills will also glow a distinctive color: blue for $5 USD bills, orange for $10 USD bills, green for $20 USD bills, yellow for $50 USD bills, and red for $100 USD bills.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By ellefagan — On Sep 18, 2009

fascinating! thanks so much. --elle fagan

By anon45513 — On Sep 17, 2009

I love reading wiseGeek everday and look forward to it. However, I have not received a "wiseGeek" article for the last two days. I have been trying to contact you but have failed. Does anyone have an e-mail address or a suggestion? I'm also inqiring through my internet company. Thanks, C-A from Ohio

By anon45170 — On Sep 14, 2009

Very helpful for US citizens, but do you have a similar article for us non-geeks in the UK??

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