How Counterfeiting Works

What is counterfeiting and how does it work?

Counterfeiting is the act of copying or forging an item, with fraudulent intent. In other words, someone who counterfeits tries to recreate something of value and pass it off as the original.

The term counterfeiting is most often associated with money, but people will attempt to counterfeit anything that has value such as drivers' licenses, citizenship papers, stock certificates, designer good and drugs.

Traditionally, counterfeiters have commonly set their eyes on paper money due to its high value and the ease of using fake money. But, how do counterfeiters create their fakes?

In the early days of printing, counterfeiters had to have access to large and expensive printing equipment. In order to recreate the patterns on printed money, counterfeiters had to engrave elaborate designs onto metal plates that were used to imprint the fakes onto paper.

Modern technology has added new tools to the counterfeiters' arsenals. Computers with high-resolution scanners and printers have made the recreation of a design or pattern incredibly simple. It is possible to use a personal computer to scan in a hundred dollar bill in high resolution and have a digital file that is a reasonable facsimile in a matter of minutes. However, some of the detail that is included on paper money to prevent counterfeiting is lost in the process. Additional details make the money hard to reproduce on a common printer.

Some of the measures the treasury puts into place to make money difficult to counterfeit include tiny, detailed lines and patterns, microprinting and sparkling ink that shifts colors depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Many different colors are used to print paper money and it is very difficult to match all of the colors. In addition, money is printed on special paper known as "rag" paper, made of cotton and linen fibers. This paper is thin, crisp and highly durable; it has a unique feel and is not like commonly used writing or printing papers to the touch. Visually, the paper is different because it has small colored fibers built into it; it is actually illegal in the United States to reproduce just the rag paper used for the manufacture of money. Since money is printed on both sides, a counterfeiter must properly align the printing for a bill to look authentic.

New United States twenty dollar bills have additional security against counterfeiting. They contain a small plastic strip embedded in the bill; the strip has the words "USA twenty" and a flag printed on it and is visible from both sides of the twenty. Some of the inks used in real money are magnetic; this allows automated systems to quickly recognize valid money. There is also a watermark on the bill with a very faint portrait of President Jackson.

Despite all of the anti-counterfeiting techniques used to produce paper money, it is possible to create bills that may fool the average person looking with the naked eye. And, counterfeiters often take advantage of situations with low light and high volume to pass their fake bills. A busy bartender in a nightclub is less likely to pay attention to the money handed to him than a teller at a bank, for example.

Since counterfeiting is a federal crime, the penalties for engaging in these activities are severe. The U.S. Secret Service handles reports of counterfeiting and if convicted a counterfeiter can face up to fifteen years in jail.

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