How to Spot Fake Money

Sophisticated security features make both checking and counterfeiting harder

Think you can spot a fake dollar? It’s getting more challenging, because more security features have been incorporated into the design of bills to thwart increasingly sophisticated counterfeiters. Still, there are some key signs that can help detect doctored dollars, along with a host of equipment that can help you avoid falling victim to counterfeiting.

Key Takeaways

  • As the world’s most popular currency, the American dollar is a favorite target for counterfeiters.
  • The U.S. government is trying to stay ahead of tech innovations that make counterfeiting easier by adding sophisticated security features to bills.
  • Three-dimensional images, watermarks, and color-shifting ink provide clues about whether money is fake.

How Big a Problem Is Counterfeiting?

The U.S. dollar is the world’s most popular currency, widely used by travelers abroad and held in the vaults of central banks around the world. The Federal Reserve estimated that as of March 2021 about 50% of all dollars in circulation were held outside of the country. Yet this popularity comes at a cost, as the greenback is also one of the most counterfeited currencies. The U.S. Secret Service seized more than half a billion dollars worth of counterfeit money in 2020, a 40% rise from the year before. 

Innovations in technology, such as increasingly sophisticated computers, printers, and copiers, have helped keep counterfeiters in business. In turn, the U.S. government has adopted a series of features aimed at frustrating even the most skilled forgers, from color-shifting ink and threads embedded in the paper to watermarks and 3D imagery.

The government’s countermeasures haven’t convinced all counterfeiters to quit, however. In fact, North Korea and other sophisticated players have been developing so-called “supernotes” with high-quality paper and presses that make easy detection difficult.

That being said, counterfeit money remains relatively rare, given the effort that has to go into printing and distributing it. A 2010 study done for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago showed that only about one out of every 10,000 bills was estimated to be counterfeit, with the $100 bill accounting for the vast majority. 

Security Features of U.S. Bills

When you open up your wallet, you get a window into the evolution of U.S. bills. Each denomination has slightly different security features, ranging from a $1 bill design that hasn’t changed in nearly 60 years to a $100 bill with all the bells—literally—of modern security measures. To tell whether a bill is fake, you can use a combination of touch and sight, as well as a variety of detection devices. Let’s go through the features to look for on each bill.

If you get a bill you suspect is counterfeit, contact the local police station or Secret Service office.

$1 Bill

The dollar hasn’t been redesigned since 1963, and there are no plans for a makeover. That’s because it’s rarely a target of counterfeiters—not enough bang for the buck. Still, there are a number of security features and other markings you can check to make sure it’s a real bill.

First, the paper: All U.S. bills are made with a blend of 25% linen and 75% cotton interwoven with tiny red and blue security fibers. They also feature raised print, giving the bills a unique feel. The bill should feel slightly rough when you move your finger across it.

Next, the images: In addition to George Washington’s likeness on the front, there are several designs that can help confirm whether a dollar is legit. Washington is flanked on the left by the black seal of whichever regional Federal Reserve bank—there are a dozen in the Federal Reserve System—is responsible for distributing the bill. On the right you’ll find the seal of the U.S. Treasury. On the back are the two images from the Great Seal of the United States, with the Eye of Providence above a pyramid on the left and the national coat of arms (featuring a bald eagle holding an olive branch and 13 arrows in its talons) on the right. 

Finally, the lettering: A serial number, which appears twice on the front, is made up of a letter at the beginning and ends with eight numbers in the middle. The first letter, from A to L, corresponds with the regional federal bank that originally distributed the bill.

$5 Bill

The $5 bill, redesigned in 2008, has more-sophisticated security features than the single dollar, such as coloring, watermarks, and a security thread that can only be seen under ultraviolet light. Abe Lincoln graces the front, with the Lincoln Memorial on the back. While the Treasury seal remains on the right, the seal to the left is now of the entire Federal Reserve System rather than just one regional federal bank. 

For added security, bills $5 and higher are more colorful than the traditional greenback, with the light purple center of the $5 bill blending to gray near the edges. Another new feature of these higher denominations is the watermark, which you can see from either side of the bill by holding it up to the light. The $5 bill has two watermarks on the front, both including the number “5.” These denominations are also embedded with a security thread that turns colors in ultraviolet light. The thread on the $5 bill, which glows blue, has an alternating pattern of “USA” and “5.”

Bills $5 and higher have microprinting that can be seen through a magnifying glass. On the front of the $5 bill, you will find in capital letters the words “FIVE DOLLARS” printed inside the left and right borders, while the eagle’s shield is marked with the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM” and “USA.” On the back, “USA FIVE” is printed on the edge of the big purple “5.”

The serial number is also different for these higher denominations, consisting of two letters followed by eight numbers and a letter. The first letter corresponds with the year the note was designed, while the second represents the regional federal bank that distributed the bill.

$10 Bill

The $10 bill, issued in 2006, has the same security features as the $5 bill plus some added color-shifting capabilities. Except for hosting Alexander Hamilton on the front and the U.S. Treasury Building on the back, the seals, serial numbers, and some of the other imagery are similar to the $5 bill. 

The $10 bill is tinted with orange, yellow, and red. On the right side of the front, a watermark shows a lighter image of Hamilton when the bill is held up to the light. The security thread, running vertically just to the right of the main Hamilton image, includes in capital letters the words “USA TEN” and glows orange under ultraviolet light. Microprinting below Hamilton’s portrait includes the words “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “TEN DOLLARS USA,” while “USA 10” appears below the image of the torch.

One additional security feature for denominations $10 and up is the use of ink that shifts colors from copper to green when you tilt the note 45 degrees. For this bill, the number “10” on the lower-right corner of the front changes colors.

$20 Bill

The $20 bill, redesigned in 2003, has similar security features to the $10 bill. Andrew Jackson is on the front, with the White House on the back. The background colors are green and peach, but the seals and serial numbers are similar to the $10 bill.

The words “TWENTY USA” are printed in capital letters in blue in the background to the right of Jackson’s portrait, while a magnifying glass would reveal “USA20” in microprinting along the edge of that text. More small print appears In the border below the Treasurer’s signature on the bottom left, reading “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 20 USA 20.” 

In addition, a watermark of Jackson can also be seen from both sides in the light. The security thread, running vertically on the left of the front, has a pattern with the words “USA TWENTY” and glows green under ultraviolet light. The “20” on the bottom right has color-shifting ink.

$50 Bill

The latest $50 bill was unveiled in 2004, featuring the same design elements of the $10 and $20 bills. The front has an image of Ulysses S. Grant, while the back shows the U.S. Capitol. The bill has background colors of red and blue.

Inside some of the blue stars on the left front, the words “FIFTY,” “USA,” and “50” appear in capital letters in microprinting. “FIFTY” is printed again in smaller letters within the borders of either side of the bill, while “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” can be seen with a magnifying glass inside Grant’s collar.

In a security thread that runs vertically to the right of Grant’s portrait, the words “USA 50” show up in yellow under ultraviolet light. A watermark of Grant’s face can also be seen from both sides, and the “50” on the bottom right of the front is printed with color-shifting ink. 

$100 Bill

The $100 bill is the biggest target of counterfeiters, which is why it was redesigned in 2013 with some added security features. The latest innovation is a blue 3D security ribbon woven into the paper, with images of bells and the number “100” that look like they’re moving when you tilt the bill. Also, to the left of the color-shifting “100” on the front there’s a bell inside of a copper-colored inkwell that looks like it disappears when tilted.

The bill, which has images of Benjamin Franklin on the front and Independence Hall on the back, also uses microprinting in several places. The text “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” appears in capital letters on Franklin’s collar, while “USA 100” can be seen near the watermark. Along a golden quill to the right of Franklin are the words “ONE HUNDRED USA,” and the border has a pattern of “100”s. Running vertically to the left of the portrait is a security thread with the text “USA” and “100” that lights up in pink under ultraviolet light.

Is Counterfeiting American Currency a Serious Problem?

With the advent of increasingly sophisticated equipment—such as computers, printers, and copiers—counterfeiting has become easier than in the past. That’s why the U.S. government has employed a variety of techniques to thwart the practice. The $100 bill is the most counterfeited, and North Korea is among the international culprits.

What Are the Security Features Employed?

Security features include the kind of paper on which the notes are printed, color-shifting ink, embedded threads, 3D imagery, microprinting, and watermarks,

How Much Counterfeit Money Is Out There in the World?

In 2020 the U.S. Secret Service confiscated more than half a billion dollars in counterfeit money, a 40% rise from the previous year.

The Bottom Line

If you suspect that you’ve been handed a counterfeit bill, don’t pocket it and look the other way. Whether you’re making fake money or handing it off to someone else, counterfeiting carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Contact the local police station or Secret Service office immediately. The U.S. Currency Education Program has a list of offices.

Article Sources

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