The 7 Best Counterfeit Bill Detectors
A Brief History Of Counterfeit Currency
Counterfeiting money has been around for so long, many people call it "the world's second-oldest profession" — with the oldest, of course, being professional ghost hunter.
The first coins popped up in the Greek city of Lydia sometime around 600 B.C.E. These were made of gold or silver, and criminals would mix those metals with their baser counterparts. They'd also trim the edges of coins and use the shavings to make new coins.
The rise of paper money didn't stop counterfeiters, either. In China in the 13th century C.E., currency was made from mulberry wood; this prompted the Chinese government to post armed guards around mulberry forests, so that evildoers couldn't come in and chop down their own personal money trees.
The crime was seen as so serious in the Middle Ages that it was often punishable by death. An English couple, Thomas and Anne Rogers, was convicted of clipping forty pieces of silver; he was drawn, quartered, and hanged, while she was burned alive. Suffice to say, they never did it again.
This philosophy carried over to colonial America, as most early currency had the words "to counterfeit is death" printed on it. That didn't stop criminals, of course, and one man, Samuel Upham, may have been the most successful counterfeiter of all time. Upham originally started making fake cash as a political statement, but like many politicians, he found that the money was more alluring than the message. Upham claimed to have made and distributed fifteen million dollars' worth of fake money over his career, enough that he could have single-handedly made the Louisiana Purchase if he'd been so inclined.
Men like Upham were so successful that Abraham Lincoln was forced to create the Secret Service to investigate counterfeiting crimes (ironically, their other job is protecting presidents). Counterfeiting was out of control after the Civil War, with some estimating that a full third of all currency in circulation at the time was phony.
While the Secret Service was largely successful at busting up fake money rings, the primary weapon against counterfeiters would prove to be the bills themselves. Advancements in printing technology, as well as the use of a highly specific paper made of cotton, have made it harder than ever to make passable bills.
That hasn't stopped the bad guys, though. Hundreds of people attempt to fool the feds every year. As far as crimes go, though, there's certainly lower-hanging fruit out there.
How To Spot A Fake Bill
If you suspect someone might be trying to slip you some funny money, then you should obviously invest in a detector. There are other things you can look for that can tip you off to the fake stuff, however.
Before we get started, though, we should warn you that the detecting machines are more effective than the pens, so don't try to take the cheap way out. That being said, the first place you should always check is the watermark. Hold the bill up to the light, and there should be a faint image to the right of the portrait.
While you're holding it up, look for the security thread (this is only on $5 bills and higher). It's a small strip running down the face of the bill, and it's on a different location for every denomination. It should glow in a different color if you put it under UV light.
You can also bust out a magnifying glass and look for the small, micro-printed words that are in various places on the bill. They say things like, "USA" or "E pluribus unum," so if you see one that says, "I'm with stupid" or anything similar, you've probably got a forgery on your hands.
The way the paper feels is another tell. It should be slightly rough — a consequence of using cotton, rather than normal paper.
Basically, trust your gut. If the money seems off, check it before you accept it.
Things You Didn't Know You Wanted To Know About Counterfeiting
Running across counterfeit currency seems like one of those things that you hear about, but never expect to actually encounter.
However, chances are you've had some in your hand at some point in your life, and there's a decent chance there's a fake bill in your wallet right now (I figured out a foolproof way to beat the crooks, though — I don't have any money).
The first thing you should realize is that you can get funny money from anywhere, even banks, so don't think merely avoiding seedy characters will do the trick. Check your cash before you walk out of the building, though, because once you leave with that fake bill, the bank won't take it back.
As you might expect, the most-spoofed bills are the higher denominations. However, people still forge coins, although they're usually not as good at it (and the ridges on some coins are actually there to prevent counterfeiting). Mostly, though, fake coins are made to fool collectors, rather than laundromats.
You're most likely to encounter bogus cash while traveling. This is because you're less likely to recognize fake bills in a currency you're unfamiliar with, and bad guys see tourists as easy targets.
Oh, and in case you were tempted to start printing up your own imitation riches, you should know that being convicted of counterfeiting in the U.S. can land you behind bars for 25 years, as well as cost you up to $250,000 in fines.
Although paying the fines shouldn't be that difficult, if you're a good enough counterfeiter.