How to Protect Yourself From Counterfeiters

Dayton Uttinger  | 

When it comes down to it, money is a strange concept, especially these days. In exchange for your product or labor, people swipe plastic cards that transfer digital dollars from one account to another, and those digital dollars are really just virtual representations of pieces of paper with dead men on the front. And everyone accepts all of that as legitimate, because of an assurance that we could use those same pieces of paper to trade for something that we want. It is that promise that makes money valuable, as opposed to a product with innate value, like clothing or food. That promise is difficult to recreate, but the paper itself? Much easier.

Counterfeiting has existed as long as currency itself. As technology has made it easier to imitate the materials and design of currency, it’s also given governments the tools to detect forgeries and hopefully prevent them. However, it’s a game of going back and forth, each side innovating new techniques constantly. While this game can hurt individuals, counterfeit bills are a greater concern for businesses. You as might be carrying fake bills in your wallet right now, but they have more potential to change hands more frequently. Those fake bills might not encounter someone who knows how to identify counterfeit bills for several transactions. Cash from a business, however, usually goes straight to a bank, where counterfeit bills are much more easily identified. Business owners are not only the most impacted by counterfeiting, but they are also the main line of defense.

Why Should You Care?

It might not seem that big of a deal if you accidentally accept a counterfeit $20 bill, but you will not be reimbursed for those bills. If you do end up accepting counterfeit bills, those are essentially lost revenue. When you try and deposit them in a bank or pay for something  using those bills, they likely won’t be accepted. Instead, those bills will be confiscated and you’ll be out money. If it’s for a personal matter, this can be devastating, but you also don’t want these counterfeit bills tied to a business, as this can negatively impact your cash flow.

Additionally, the government has little recourse but to rely on private businesses to catch counterfeiting. Ultimately, physical cash will change hands multiple times, but it will probably be used to pay for something from a legitimate business at some point. In these instances, the federal government can’t exactly police every place of business, so it falls onto the shoulders of cashiers across the nation. Reporting counterfeit money is your ethical obligation. Of course, it would be better if it never got to that point to begin with.

State of Counterfeiting Now

The U.S. government has employed a lot of tactics to make the forgery of bills more difficult, expensive, impractical, you name it. Even if more complex designs are easily captured by scanners, most printers are not equipped to replicate the detail. Some of the images on dollar bills are raised or made with color-shifting ink. This can be especially difficult to recreate, but it can be done. Additionally, the paper used for our currency isn’t just regular printer paper. It’s a blend of cotton and linen, giving money its unique feel that is recognizable by anyone that handles money frequently. Because of this, wait staff and cashiers often have special pens that react to most paper but keep their color with real money.

While not foolproof, counterfeiters have figured out a way around many of these protections. Since older bills are still accepted, counterfeiters can make replicas of these versions, which lack the newest preventative technology. The printers needed to create the level of detail required for a dollar bill are increasingly mainstream. As for the paper, some counterfeiters do request large sheets of custom paper, but many now just bleach existing $1 and $5 bills. They then reprint the image of a $20, $50, or $100 bill on top, so that the paper itself is authentic. This makes the counterfeit detection pens (that many businesses use) worthless.

Where Do You Go From Here?

Some crimes vanish as technology improves, but counterfeiting is a crime that only gets easier as technology becomes more accessible and advanced, provided that older bills are still accepted. While counterfeiters might not want to invest in creating replicas of newer bills, creating counterfeits of bills with lower security features is much more tempting.

Whether they decide to create older or newer fakes, it still comes down to cashiers to prevent counterfeit acceptance, and business owners to implement those policies. Unfortunately, none of these signs are as easy as swiping a special pen across it. That method of identifying counterfeits just isn’t reliable anymore. So what are the alternatives?

  • Take the time to learn the characteristics of authentic currency.
  • Pay attention to the news so that you’re up to date on any recent counterfeiters.
  • Hold any suspect bill up to the light. With every bill except $1 and $2, there should be a thin security thread visible when the light shines through. If it’s authentic, it will say “USA” and then the denomination of the bill.
  • Examine any suspect bills under a UV light, as the security strip will glow a different color in each denomination. The the security strip in a $5 will glow blue, but it will be orange in a $10 bill, green in a $20 bill, yellow in a $50 bill, and pink in a $100 bill. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to check for a counterfeit bill, so if your business is high-pressure and time-sensitive, equip your employees with a small UV light.

Although more and more people are using credit cards, that doesn’t mean that you can let vigilance against counterfeiting fall by the wayside. Instead, it just means that tricks that you may have used in the past to test a bill’s legitimacy don’t apply anymore. We can’t rely on the swipe of a marker or a cursory glance anymore. This is a game as old as civilization, and our tactics need to be updated to keep up.

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Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.

This post was updated July 4, 2017. It was originally published July 4, 2017.