When a customer gave Joe a $100 bill for his old living room set at his yard sale last week, Joe didn’t think twice about accepting it. Life went on as usual. But then Joe tried to use the bill to pay for his purchases at Wal-Mart, and suddenly he found himself being escorted into the back of a squad car by two less-than-enthused policemen. It turns out Joe made the biggest mistake any armchair businessman can make – he accepted a bill without checking to see if it was counterfeit first. Now he’s out $100 and in a tricky situation with the police.
If you think this kind of situation is uncommon, think again. Counterfeiters slip forged bills to honest merchants all the time, and if you make the mistake of accepting the dirty money, then you’ll be the one with your head on the chopping block – not the criminal. That’s why it’s important to check any bills you receive before putting them into the cash box or into your wallet. Use these simple counterfeit-spotting techniques to do it.
- Look for the color-shifting ink. The number on the bottom right corner of any bill larger than $1 is printed in color-shifting ink. Checking this is the most discreet way to determine if a bill is counterfeit, and it’s the thing to do first. Flex the paper and see if the number turns from copper to green or from green to black. If it doesn’t, then it’s fake. Of course, even if the ink is present, it doesn’t mean the bill is legit. It just means that it has passed the first test.
- Check the watermark. After you verify the color-changing ink, hold the bill in question up to a light to check for a watermark. Any bill printed after 1995 should have a watermark that shows the portrait on the bill or its monetary value in words. If it doesn’t have a watermark, then there’s a good chance the bill was either bleached to be recast in a higher denomination or just flat-out faked.
- Examine the vertical thread. Paper money printed after 2004 also has a vertical thread embedded in the paper that spells out the particular bill’s value. If this vertical thread isn’t present or doesn’t match up with the face value of the bill, then you’re almost certainly dealing with a fake. This is because the thread is embedded using super-precise minting machinery, and while forgers can print a fake thread on top of the bill, they can’t place one inside it.
- Check the UV rainbow. Did you know that bills printed after 2004 glow under UV light and that they glow in different colors depending on the denomination? If you happen to have a UV bulb handy (it’s the new trend), check it for yourself. The security thread we just mentioned should glow blue on a five, orange on the ten, green on your Jacksons, yellow on a fifty and reddish-pink on the C-note. Checking this in a real transaction is probably unnecessary if you’ve already verified a bill’s watermark along with the color-shifting ink and the security thread, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, right?
- What about older money? The caveat with these inspection techniques is that older bills are sometimes deemed counterfeit. Watch out for that. Legal tender printed before 1990 doesn’t include all the watermarks and security measures used by modern currency, but that doesn’t mean it’s fake. The Secret Service has created a good guide that clerks and merchants can use to help authenticate older bills. We recommend giving it a read so that you don’t accidentally cry wolf on legitimate money.
The only thing worse than unwittingly accepting counterfeit money is being caught trying to use it a few days later. Don’t let this embarrassing and potentially illegal predicament happen to you. Use these techniques to verify any bills – especially $50s and $100s – before you accept them.
And if you happen to encounter a forged bill one day, do the responsible thing and contact the authorities immediately. If you can safely keep the counterfeiter on the premises until the police arrive, that’s great. But if you can’t, just turn in the forged bill. You’ll be doing everyone a great service.