How to Spot a Counterfeit Bill

Counterfeit Bill or Not?

Ever go into a drug store or local business and find that the cashier colors on your twenty dollar bill with a marker? Well, she’s not just playing with markers like an errant two year old. She’s testing your bill to see if it’s counterfeit.

Although counterfeiting is not the problem it was in 1865 when the Secret Service was established (in part to minimize this problem) people occasionally still try to reproduce money on their home laser printers. These special pens, which you can buy at your local office supply for around $4, contain an iodine solution. This solution reacts with wood-based papers — such as you might put in a copy machine — but not with the fiber-based papers used by the U.S. Treasury (which is under the direction of the Federal Reserve).

If you ever find a briefcase full of money, and you want to know if it’s real, using one of these markers is probably the fastest way to do the job. But if you just want to check the bills in your wallet, here are a few things to look for.

The Portrait

On an authentic bill, the portrait will stand out from the paper. It will have a more three-dimensional look. Always compare your suspicious bill with one you know to be the real McCoy. The portrait on the fake bill will look flat in comparison.

The Artwork

The borders, scrollwork and seals on a good bill will be crisp, clear, and precise. The lines will be unbroken. The saw-tooth points on the seals will be pointed with none broken or blunt. Again, compare two bills for reference. On a counterfeit, the artwork will appear muddy or unclear and the lines may have broken areas.

The Serial Numbers

The ink color of the serial numbers should match that of the seals. Also, the digits that make up the serial number should be evenly spaced and of the same style or font. A counterfeit bill may have crooked digits that are unevenly spaced.

The Paper

Genuine U.S. Treasury bills are printed on paper made of fibers, not wood pulp. Embedded in it are tiny red and blue fibers. Counterfeiters will try to imitate this by printing red and blue lines on their paper. A close examination will tell you if the red and blue lines you see are in fact printed on, or embedded.

The Security Features

Except for one and two-dollar bills, special security features have been implemented to make it harder to counterfeit. To easily spot a fake, look for the following features:

Security Thread

In 1990, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began embedding a thread in bills $5 and up. This thread can be seen when holding the bill up to the light. On it you can read the printing on the thread. It will read “USA” followed by the bill’s denomination — spelled out for $5, $10, and $20 bills but in numerals for $50 and $100.

Also, this thread is located in different positions for different denominations so that lower denominations cannot be bleached and reprinted as higher denominations. Holding the bill up to a black light will cause the security thread to glow—each denomination a different color.


Hold the bill up to the light to reveal a watermark. It will be either another portrait of the one on the front of the bill or a number representing the denomination. Located to the right of the portrait and visible from both sides, it will be on 10, 20, 50, and 100 dollar bills printed since 1996 and on 5 dollar bills printed since 1999.

Color-shifting Ink

Tilt the bill to see if the ink appears to change color. This feature appeared on 20, 50, and 100 dollar bills in 1996 and on $10 bills in 1999. It does not appear on $5 or smaller.


With a magnifying glass, examine the bill for micro-printing. This extremely tiny print will appear in various places, depending on the denomination and year printed, on bills $5 and up printed since 1990. If a counterfeit bill has micro-printing it will appear as poor quality. Just as with the artwork, real micro-printing will always be crisp, clear, and legible.

Folks in the banking industry, retail sales, or other occupations which deal with large sums of cash will get a “feel” for the real deal just by handling money all day. But living in an age of direct deposit, automatic funds transfers, and debit cards, the rest of us don’t handle money like we used to. So if you hear of a counterfeiting issue in your area, you might want to take the time to study a few bills.

Have you ever handled a counterfeit bill? Tell us your story!

Ready to Quit Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck?

Just click to join 225,000+ others and take our FREE email course to better manage your money, pay off debt, and save! And get FREE access to our money-saving workshop ($29 value)!

Related Articles:

  1. TB at BlueCollarWorkman

    And this is one reason why I’ll never get into the counterfeiting business. Too much stuff going on to pay attention to, lol. Threads, fiber-based, changing ink, sharp edges, etc., what a headache 🙂

    • Carol J. Alexander

      Sounds kinda like blogging, huh TB? Posts, affiliates, codes, pinning, sharing, oh my!

  2. Jim

    I spoke to the bank teller about counterfeit. She had a bill that just did not feel right. It passed all the tests at the bank, so she called the mint and ran the serial number. It was bogus.

    If you have a counterfeit bill and notify police, they will confiscate it and you are out of luck.

    I was at a store where the customer was charged with passing counterfeit money. She got away with it because she documented that the money came right from the bank.

    This was a few years ago. Have things improved since then? Probably. But, there is always a way. So, use your credit or debit card.

    Most people don’t carry much cash, so purse snatching, mugging and home invasion is not too common these days. Used TVs and other electronics are no worth carrying off. A professional crook knows he is lucky to get 10 cents on the dollar for even good stuff. He/she wants cash. Also, eventually, he will be caught.

    But, if he/she is really a good thief, we elect them to public office.

  3. Todd - Fearless Men

    I love reading about stuff that would make me a better law enforcement agent. Now, I’m not one. But I like to pretend I have the knowledge like this to spot crooks and foil plots!

  4. Alan

    Extremely entertaining read and a good reminder that we need to keep our eyes open when dealing with cash. Thanks again!