Trends in Counterfeit Currency

It’s getting worse:

More counterfeiters are using today’s ink-jet printers, computers and copiers to make money that’s just good enough to pass, he said, even though their product is awful.

In the past, he said, the best American counterfeiters were skilled printers who used heavy offset presses to turn out decent 20s, 50s and 100s. Now that kind of work is rare and almost all comes from abroad.


Green pointed to a picture hanging in his downtown conference room. It’s a photo from a 1980s Lenexa case that involved heavy printing presses and about 2 million fake dollars.

“That’s what we used to see,” he boomed. “That’s the kind of case we used to make.”

Agents discovered then that someone had purchased such equipment and a special kind of paper and it all went to the Lenexa shop. Then the agents secretly went in there with a court order and planted a tiny video camera on a Playboy calendar.

They streamed video 24/7 for days, stormed in with guns drawn and sent bad guys to federal prison.

Green’s voice sank as he described today’s sad-sack counterfeiters.

These people call up pictures of bills on their computers, buy paper at an office supply store and print out a few bills. They cut the bills apart, go into a store or bar and pass one or two.

Many offenders are involved with drugs, he said, often methamphetamine. If they get caught, so little money is involved that federal prosecutors won’t take the case.

It’s interesting. Counterfeits are becoming easier to detect while people are becoming less skilled in detecting it:

Part of the problem, Green said, is that the government has changed the money so much to foil counterfeiting. With all the new bills out there, citizens and even many police officers don’t know what they’re supposed to look like.

Moreover, many people see paper money less because they use credit or debit cards.

The result: Ink-jet counterfeiting accounted for 60 percent of $103 million in fake money removed from circulation from October 2007 to August 2008, the Secret Service reports. In 1995, the figure was less than 1 percent.

Another article on the topic.

Posted on January 5, 2009 at 6:34 AM46 Comments


daniel January 5, 2009 6:53 AM

Interesting…In Romania we have all our money made in plastic, literally.Harder to counterfeit I think. Sad thing that we will adopt the Euro some time in the future.

Steve January 5, 2009 7:31 AM

I would think that counterfeiting traveler’s checks would be more prevalent. Hardly anyone knows what an Amex, or Citi, or BofA travelers check looks like, so if the design looks intricate and the paper feels good, it will often pass.

Of course, some sort of fake ID is needed to go along with it.

Also, I think that this would be (at least in the US) investigated by the FBI, not the Secret Service. That means a higher profile case (larger volumes) before they’d have the time and resources to allocate to an investigation.

Clive Robinson January 5, 2009 7:32 AM

It might be a sad fact that the production of “fake bank notes” is not being done on “big iron” presses any more, but is that unexpected?

The simple fact is most of the old style pressess capable of making good “fakes” are not realy economic to run in general purpose print shops these days.

Also the “Secret Service” know where most (say 99.9%) of them are.

Low cost print technology has come a long long way in twenty years (anyone remember the old fullscap machines with their special type inks and pages and solvents).

If you can print up a fake that you can pass in a bar on a 60 dollar inkjet on 5 dollar a ream paper why spend any more?

Further as noted if you keep it small you don’t get prosecuted, make it big style these days you could be doing life (remember that little change in the law to stop credit card number theives I think you will find it applies to counterfeiting as well).

The cost of better paper is not justified on a small run of small value bills, pluss you don’t know who might be logging your purchase, and what happens if the special paper is found in your house?

Buy the same printer and paper in town that everybody else does then having them in your home is not realy a smoking gun is it?

The comment about not counterfeiting ob US terretory makes a lot of sense. I can think of maybe 30 countries in the world that would be quite happy to have you run a high quality print shop and not be at all interested in what else you may be upto. (Heck, there is even one African country that might well be happy for somebody else to print their paper money as it costs them more than it’s worth ;).

I suspect that the next step (if it has not already happened) in high quality counterfeiting is re-engeniring of the software in some high end printers to remove the software protections built in to stop counterfeiting. Lets be honest about this if one or two “crackers” put their mind to it getting the original source code would be relativly trivial (and low risk). The next stage of taking out the anti_counterfeiting code is probably little more than hard coding a return value and putting it through the tool chain…

trapspam January 5, 2009 7:48 AM

Real easy fix to software detecting currency anti-counterfeiting code, use older software and older scanners.

squarooticus January 5, 2009 8:02 AM

There is still one organization that creates perfect counterfeit federal reserve notes: the US Treasury. Until this problem is solved, counterfeit dollars will continue to flood the market, devaluing the dollars you already hold.

Calum January 5, 2009 8:16 AM

I was under the impression that anti-counterfeiting is usually done in hardware and isn’t universal by any means – for example, Photoshop probably incorporates it in some way, but the GIMP, for obvious reasons, probably doesn’t.

Safety Dance January 5, 2009 8:31 AM

I only keep a black and white printer at my house. Plausible deniability, you know.

Safety Dance January 5, 2009 8:36 AM

Ah, but seriously, this is getting serious.

I sold two cars and some stuff on eBay for cash. I checked the bills every way to Sunday. But…

As it stands, I get jumpy using genuine cash. I get nervous that I might have received counterfeit, and that I might get jailed for passing it along.

And I dunno how suspicious I look, but when I give a $20 co-pay at my kid’s pediatrician’s office, the clerk inspects the bills and draws on them with some funky invisible ink marker. I feel like a winner when she does that.

JB Zimmerman January 5, 2009 8:39 AM

After all the fuss about the EURion Constellation and the ‘black box’ stuffed into Photoshop, it seems that (as usual) the real weak point is people. If you don’t even need to make a ‘good’ fake to pass it, all that sort of technowidgetery won’t help.

It can be argued that such software/firmware does make it more difficult to make good fakes, but as another commenter noted, if older software versions can get around this, what’s the point?

I would say that given the description of the typical user/forger from the post, simple software countermeasures on cheap printers are likely a win, since they don’t seem to want to spend much on their tools (time, energy or money).

papa zita January 5, 2009 8:44 AM

One problem is the many different bills in circulation, and the fact that the people who handle the money are some of the least experienced (and smallest paid) of the staff of many stores. It cuts the other way, too. Some honest people with good (but old) bills have been accused and arrested by store security for trying to pass counterfeit money by stores. The stores are generally embarrassed (and sued) when it’s obviously legal tender.

tjvm January 5, 2009 9:06 AM

“Moreover, many people see paper money less because they use credit or debit cards.”

I think this makes counterfeiting harder, not easier. If you’re trying to pass fake bills, you want to be as inconspicuous as possible. But these days, making any large purchase with cash is unusual, and invites scrutiny.

I suspect that most of the effort and talent that used to go into counterfeiting now goes into credit card fraud, since you can walk into Best Buy and make a $1000 purchase with a credit card without anyone batting an eye.

Tanya January 5, 2009 9:21 AM

One option would be to retire paper money entirely and switch to coins. It would create a significant barrier to entry to new counterfeiters…

ax0n January 5, 2009 10:07 AM

Nice! I actually live a block away from the Lenexa Police Department.

Also, to further the problem of counterfeit bills, all the advanced printing techniques in the world doesn’t add any security to the currency system when the so-called “easy-to-copy” stuff is still legal tender. Make a few thousand chintzy counterfeit 1980’s $10 bills and you’re all set.

Tim January 5, 2009 10:59 AM

In Maryland there was a recent case involving a man bleaching the ink from one dollar bills and printing fake $50’s and $20s. He was released on bail and re-arrested the same day for passing more fake bills. The purpose was to fool the counterfeit detection pens which are sensitive to the paper. That caused the clerks at the store where I work to rely more on the water-mark than the pen. If you get a $50 and the water mark is George Washington then you have a fake. Also even the pen can have a false positive. I have seen it turn black on a real bill before. (I took it because it had the water-mark, color change ink, security thread and micro-printing. I also got a second opinion.) Also regular newspaper turns yellow with the pen. Yellow is supposed to be real currency. I’m kind of suprised that there aren’t more counterfeit $5’s and $1’s. Nobody checks them.

counter-counterfeiting ... January 5, 2009 11:03 AM

As I gather, one important feature in anti.counterfeiting in bills and so on are those sine waves imprinted on them, that are supposedly hard to scab because of aliasing issues?
would it be that hard to just measure the waves on a real note (there are those gadgets to count threads in fabric, basically a loupe and a scale) and program their forms in postscript?
you could render the rest of the nore in photoshop, and use any posscript-wateramrking tool to put the waves into the picture. Just an idea that doesn’t need to crack any software.
Or am I misunderstanding the way these countermeasures work?

another bruce January 5, 2009 11:05 AM

hey, don’t go dissin’ on the counterfeiters!

i read an article somewhere which made the case that counterfeiters are actually helping our economy during the current liquidity crisis. the government gave a lot of money to the banks, but the banks are still scared to lend it, so something else needs to step up and provide liquidity. if enough high-quality fake bills are pumped into the system, it could unfreeze the wheels of commerce and forestall a depression. this is nothing less than what “helicopter ben” bernanke once proposed to do, and as always, our stalwart private sector is stepping into the gap. naturally, they expect some kind of remuneration for their services.

djb January 5, 2009 11:14 AM

I attended a seminar ten years ago hosted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners about counterfeiting (money, credentials, checks, etc.). Frank Abagnale was the keynote speaker. Abagnale pointed out then that counterfeiting was no longer an art form that required extensive skill or resources due to the existence of high quality scanners, printers, and computer programs. He provided examples that were impressive at the time. Think of the technological progress since then . . .

In order to be used successfully, each type of counterfeited item has to “survive” a certain level of scrutiny. That level of scrutiny is mostly dependent upon whom is accepting or examining the counterfeit item, their expertise, and what resources they use to perform that assessment. For this reason, I suspect fake cash is still easy to pass in places such as clubs, bars, restaurants, etc., where unskilled people see a large amount of cash under suboptimal conditions (lighting, noise, distractions, time pressures).

The sophistication of the counterfeiter matters greatly. Chemical pens, for example, are essentially useless if the counterfeiter knows how to treat their product with the right chemicals in order to create the same results as real cash.

MikeD January 5, 2009 11:35 AM

“Make a few thousand chintzy counterfeit 1980’s $10 bills and you’re all set.”

Only Banks will reliably take old currency. I had some 10 year old 20 dollar bills that didn’t look like the current 20 dollar bills and no one would take them. I had to go to a bank to get them exchanged. You can’t make a store take money they don’t trust.

Clive Robinson January 5, 2009 11:46 AM

@ counter-counterfeiting,

“Or am I misunderstanding the way these countermeasures work?”

High end scanners and printers that will easily deal with most of the “features” on bank notes have software in them (ie firmware not hardware) that detects certain “security features” in the banknotes artwork, and then “automagicaly” switch down to a much lower resolution or apply edge bluring/blocking or other features to make the copying easily visable to the naked eye.

Also by default a lot of high resolution devices also embed a unique number in the images so that the equipment used can be identified.

As all of these features are in the software and usually the software is writen in a manner that is fairly standard disabeling the features is well within the capability of a high end “games cracker” likewise getting the original software source code is not realy going to be that difficult so even a modest ability “cracker” could modify the code as appropriate.

The problem with using older equipment is that it lacks features that make the counterfitting that bit better (ie still recognisably different to an unaided human).

No One is Anonymous January 5, 2009 12:34 PM

There is a movie named “To Live and Die in LA” that features a great opening scene of an old world counterfeiter doing his trade. Worth seeing if you have not seen it.

Clive Robinson January 5, 2009 12:39 PM

@ Tanya,

“One option would be to retire paper money entirely and switch to coins. It would create a significant barrier to entry to new counterfeiters…”

If the UK is anything to go by then no…

When the 50pence coin was the largest denomination coin. Two metalurgists analysed the alloy used and ordered up the same mix from a foundry in approriate thickness sheets.

They made up their own dies and pressed out 50,000 coins.

They where caught not because of the forging but due (unfortunatly for them) to a spate of robberies of (gas meter) coin machines. When they tried to use largish quantities of the coins.

Although admitting to forging, they where not belived as their coins could not be distinquished from those the mint produced…

Shortly after the One Pound coin (the Maggie) was introduced quite a number of gangs started producing fakes. Supprisingly though, even though they where fairly easy to spot (due to the fact they had been “cast” not pressed and the surfaces where usually dished) they easily got into circulation. And it was estimated that there where over a million of them in London…

Even the two piece two pound coin (and the Euro as well) has been faked with little difficulty.

The joy of faking the Euro (European wide currancy) is that as each country makes it’s own spotting fakes is not easy providing they look of sufficient quality. So much so the old joke about “forget the size feel the quality” now appears to apply not just to the notes but the coins as well…

Skorj January 5, 2009 12:46 PM


“I’m kind of suprised that there aren’t more counterfeit $5’s and $1’s. Nobody checks them.”

Well, if we’re talking about counterfeiting with an ink-jet printer, it probably costs more for the ink than the counterfeit bill is worth!

I’m surprised that counterfeiting of high-value printed collectables hasn’t skyrocketed. It must be easier to print a fake comic book or fake stamp than a fake bank note.

Peter January 5, 2009 2:52 PM

In the UK, as Clive pointed out, coins seem to be the conterfeiters main target (the number of fake £1 coins going about is astonishing).

In most UK notes the ink is raised, so it doesn’t feel completely flat. Also if you gently rub say a £10 against a plain sheet of paper you will see a mark left by the raised ink. All notes in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, also have the ominous metal strip embedded into the note (all you need to do is hold it in front of a light to see it). I would think it very rare that a note printed on an ink jet were accepted in the UK — even in a bar or nightclub.

There was a guy arrested, last year I think, in Glasgow for conterfeiting several million worth of currency… however, he did own a print shop and the notes were reputedly very good quality.

dalesd January 5, 2009 3:28 PM

If you want software that can scan a bill, use anything open source. Even if it does have anti-counterfeiting code, it wouldn’t be too hard to remove it from the source and compile your own.

Gary, Sydney, Aus January 5, 2009 3:32 PM

Like Daniel in Romania, Australia has had plastic ‘paper’ money for fifteen years, with one part that is left transparent. They last a lot longer than paper (not as long as coin though) and are waterproof to boot.

Davi Ottenheimer January 5, 2009 3:33 PM

You left out the statistics at the end of the article:

“President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service in 1865 to deal with a crisis: One-third of the nation’s money was counterfeit. Now the fake rate is .02 percent, or one in every 10,000 bills…”

I think this puts a necessary historical/rate perspective on the “It’s getting worse” comment you started with.

Roxnne January 5, 2009 4:20 PM

Barter; it’s the only true solution. It’s really difficult to store wealth under that system, though. Just ask the ancient Peruvians….

Michael Dwyer January 5, 2009 4:49 PM

“Part of the problem, Green said, is that the government has changed the money so much to foil counterfeiting.”

I picked up one of those cheap UV LED flashlights, recently, and have been having a great time shining it on every official document I’ve found. It was fun until I tested a stack of $20 bills fresh from the ATM machine. Most of them had a fluorescent plastic strip.

But one of them didn’t.

I’m almost positive that it was real — the printing felt and looked right, and all the other anti-counterfeit features were there. But I came away from that experience really frustrated.

Here’s a page from the government about how to recognize fake money… and I found it useless:

This article just makes it worse. My color laser printer spits out random yellow dots FOR THIS?!

BooBoo January 5, 2009 5:15 PM

Bruce’s comment is true…I work in law enforcement and most officers have no training in counterfeit bills at all. It has to be very obvious or they would never know, like most people. My wife’s bank took in a fake $100 from someone, counted it twice by hand, then gave it to my wife and never even noticed!

I heard that the new $1 coins last for up to 38 years and then can be melted down into more coins. Paper bills last about 18 months and fall apart. If we’d use coins, we’d save production costs and cut counterfeiting at least for a while.

I would encourage you all to get $50 in dollar coins and circulate them. Anything to save some money will help our economy.

Muffin January 5, 2009 5:32 PM


“I’m kind of suprised that there aren’t more counterfeit $5’s and $1’s. Nobody checks them.”

How do you know there aren’t?

pfogg January 5, 2009 7:30 PM

In recent years, I’ve been taken by surprise a number of times with what a cashier handed back to me as money. It was real, but a new design.

Before all the changes, I had enough familiarity with the usual denominations I handled ($1 – $20) that if the paper, ink, or printing method was off, it would catch my attention even if I wasn’t thinking about it. I’m sure I would have been fooled by a good forgery, but not a bad one.

That reaction has now produced enough false positives that I ignore it, so I suspect I could end up both receiving and passing a bad bill without realizing it.

Frances January 5, 2009 9:22 PM

My late father had been a bank teller as a young man and he used to say that he had been so used to the correct “feel” of paper money that a counterfeit gave itself away by the feel alone.

Here in Canada, we have $1 and $2 coins and they get heavy in a hurry. They are useful and I like them but I don’t want to convert any more denominations to coins.

Ping-Che Chen January 6, 2009 2:27 AM

I think educating people is very important. Here in Taiwan when the new series of bank notes were introduced, counterfeit rate was very high. To remedy this problem, the designs were changed and new anti-counterfeit measures were introduced. Now it’s common to see shops with their UV lights for spotting fake bank notes. Some shops such as 7-11 even have banknote counters with anti-counterfeit built-in designed for banks. But store clerks almost only check NT$1,000 bills and don’t bother with less valued bills.

I also got some fake NT$50 coins, which surprised me because I thought counterfeit coins are rare.

wkwillis January 6, 2009 4:31 AM

I’m an inventor. I figured out how to counterfeit the old money long agousing some not so intuitive technology. Today’s money? No clue.

WarLord January 6, 2009 5:29 AM


Long ago I read a story of a homeless guy who made one dollar bills and passed them.

At the time they were the worst counterfeits, like with crayon. To the point that the Feds thought a “real” counterfeiter was doing it as a joke or messing with them…

I guess they finally caught him but don’t even think they charged him. Just made him stop.

Who looks at a dollar bill?

Bacopa January 6, 2009 11:18 AM

Anyone who handles a lot of cash develops a feel for real money. The few times I’ve snagged counterfit it was the touch every time. Detector pens are almost useless. Marking with the pen becomes a ritual that takes the place of using much more sophisticated tools, fingers and eyes. Even the lowest paid cashier can develop a sense of when a bill is hinky.

As for travelers checks: I’ve taken checks with a bunch of Japanese writing on them. They loked good and had the visa logo in them. That was a few years ago. Nowdays travelers checks are run through a scanner that checks the routing and serial numbers. That might make things harder.

User1 January 7, 2009 5:41 PM

When I was about 12 years old, my brother and I would cut a corner off of 4 $20 bills, and then tape those 4 corners to a $1 bill and go pass them to the Asians at the flea market. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it did.

Kind of like using a fake id, it’s all in the presentation. The actual article has very little to do with, it’s just a prop.

Jonadab the Unsightly One January 9, 2009 7:02 AM

Where do they find these register clerks who will accept fake bills printed on normal paper? Are they drunk? Are they wearing latex gloves while running the cash register? US “paper” currency feels nothing like ordinary paper. You don’t even have to be paying attention, it’s just extremely obvious.

(It also behaves nothing like ordinary paper. For example, you can run it through the washing machine and dryer just like clothing, as I have inadvertently done on a number of occasions by forgetting to take it out of pockets; it may come out a little wrinkled, but it won’t fall apart like paper would do. If anything it looks newer afterward than before.)

I mean, yes, it would be easy to print up fake bills on normal paper that would look just like the real thing, to the eye, but as soon as you touch it… I cannot imagine anyone who runs a cash register (and thus physically handles currency on a regular basis) being fooled when you hand it to them. That, to me, is extraordinary and highly unexpected.

The $20-corners-on-George trick takes no special skill to do and will work a fair percentage of the time (because people just don’t pay that much attention; it looks and feels like real currency because it is), but you need access to a steady stream of twenties you can get the corners from without getting noticed, and the risk of getting caught is fairly high (though perhaps not any higher than with trying to pass money printed on normal inkjet paper).

Simon Bridge January 9, 2009 8:52 AM

When my High School got a Xerox (this would be early 80’s) one of the first things it was used for was printing money.

Kids would copy $10 notes – one-sided, black and white – and pass them at video arcades and any other dark, busy, place.

Anyone who thinks it’s easy to spot a fake has probably not worked checkout in a high volume store.

That was then – so this is not surprising. Technically it’s a success for the security that counterfeiting is becoming a petty crime.

(The businesses responded by turning the lights on.)

In NZ we get a lot of foreign coins mixed in.

The change to plastic money made a difference – except at the start. In this case it was because the new 20 and the old 10 were very similar – there was a regular scam in which someone claimed to have been short-changed… also the new notes would stick together making over-changing quite common.

I started a policy of auditing the tills each night – if the claimant was prepared to return after I’d counted the cash they’d get their refund. Interestingly, nobody would.

Sean Trundy January 29, 2009 1:02 PM

I was on a tour of the local secret service office last week here in Los Angeles. They showed me bins full of confiscated counterfeit money. Over $600,000 seized in the month of October, and almost none of it was “supernotes” printed on cotton-fiber paper with heavy intaglio printing presses.

Counterfeiters are smart. They have learned the many tricks of the trade. It is very easy to find information through blog sites and other socially-connected networks to learn how to fool common detection techniques. For example, spraying a “photocopy” note with ironing starch will give a pass grade on the counterfeit detector pen. Other techniques for replicating the security strip or effectively reproducing microprinting are also simple. One can even download files of some of these sites so you simply need open and push “print” and away you go for your night of partying on the town, or shopping ofr video games (perhaps one of the hardest hit industries) or fill your gas tank (another hard-hit industry).

Twylite February 4, 2009 2:34 AM

Poor public awareness of the security features of banknotes is a big problem. In 2005 South Africa launched new banknotes, and ran an education & awareness campaign in major media for several months.

For interest:
– Press announcement of new banknotes
– Security features of banknotes (PDF)$File/Security+Features.pdf

Where there is a high risk of encountering counterfeit notes, merchants will often have a flourescent/UV lamp which causes parts of the note to illuminate, or at worst have a strong light to check the watermark. This is beyond the standard features (size, color, paper texture, etc.) that all merchants and tellers should be aware of at all times.

So far as I am aware it is normal banking practice to separate deposits from withdrawals, so a client will not receive a counterfeit note deposited by another client; and deposits are (either immediately or eventually) machine counted, a process which can detect many types of counterfeiting.

Dxx February 4, 2009 8:32 PM

There were few situations in Lithuania, when some kid managed to buy stuff using bill painted by hand in single blue color with his ball pen.
Also some shopkeeper was stupid enough to accept bill which is almost twice smaller and only one side printed.

Rita May 28, 2009 8:11 AM


Would you please email me to discuss counterfeiting? I am a former student of yours and in need of some expert advise on producing paper that is very difficult to counterfeit. And I have an idea to discuss.

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