Art Williams

The Soundtrack:
Art Williams III

How to Detect Counterfeit Money


Barnes & Noble
How To Detect Counterfeit Money
Jason Kersten, with Art Williams

During my research for The Art of Making Money I came across hundreds of newspaper articles concerning how to detect counterfeit money. Such articles inevitably appear when a specific area is hit by counterfeit, and what amazes me is how often they provide wrong information. We use these pieces of paper every day and take their authenticity for granted, yet many of us—including law enforcement officers—can’t even say what makes a bill “real.” So with the help of master counterfeiter Art Williams, here's a quick guide on how to easily and reliably detect counterfeit:

Feel the Bill
“The best way to tell if money is real or fake is always by feel,” says Art. “If it feels flat, it’s suspect.” Real bills are printed using the intaglio process, which distributes ink above the surface of the paper, creating thousands of palpable ridges. Run your fingers across the portrait and inkier parts of a bill, and if you feel these ridges then your bill is virtually guaranteed to be real. Why? The overwhelming majority of counterfeiters lack the resources and ability to print intaglio. Even Art’s best counterfeits, which defeated all of measures below, were flat.
     Bills flatten and wear with age, of course, so if you can’t feel anything that doesn’t necessarily mean the bill is counterfeit; it just means it’s time to take a closer look and…

Hold that Bill in Front of a Light
When you place a genuine bill in front of a light source, hidden elements should become visible: the watermark and the security strip. The watermark looks like a smoky duplicate of the portrait. The security strip is a thin line running from the bill’s top to bottom, and it should have the bill’s denomination printed on it. If the watermark portrait matches the one on the bill, and the strip’s denomination also matches, it’s a good bet you’ve got a real bill.
    Make sure to take a close, dedicated look at these features, however, because a lot of counterfeiters bleach lower denominations and reprint them as higher ones. They do this so that they can use real currency paper with watermarks and security strips, banking on the fact that you won’t notice that the watermark on your twenty, fifty, or hundred dollar bill is actually a portrait of Abraham Lincoln—meaning the counterfeiter has reprinted a $5 bill. Simply put, if the watermark portrait is different from the one on the bill’s face, you’ve got a counterfeit.
     Pre-1996 bills don’t contain the watermark, and pre 1990 ones lack the strip, so if you have an old note you’ll have to make a decision based on sight and feel. Keep in mind that with old notes, the odds are greater that it’s counterfeit.
Never Put All Your Faith in the Pen
Countless articles advise marking bills with the DriMark, or “anti-counterfeiting” pen. Concientious counterfeiters like Art Williams will defeat it. “I loved it when they pulled out the pen,” says Art. “It meant my money passed instantly.”
The pen is iodine based and reacts to the acidic starch contained in most paper (remember that grammar school chemistry class in which the teacher dropped iodine on a potato, turning it blue? Same idea). Genuine currency is starch free, which is why the pen marks yellow. But many kinds of paper, including newsprint and directory (phonebook) paper, are also starch free. Counterfeiters know this and use those papers. It is also possible to chemically treat paper containing starch so that the iodine reaction is blocked. Bottom line: if all you go by is the pen, you are at its mercy.

Ultraviolet that Baby
If you’re working in a busy bar or nightclub, you may not have the kind of time and lighting that enables you to take a good look at bills. Passers know this, which is why bars are some of their favorite places to drop counterfeit. Treasury knows this too, which is one of the reasons why the BEP coats the security strip with ultraviolet ink. Hold any bill above $1 beneath an ultraviolet or “black” light, and the strip will fluoresce: red for $100, yellow for $50, green for $20, yellow/orange for $10 and blue for $5.

There are other features present in genuine currency that can help you confirm a bill’s authenticity. The US Secret Service’s Know Your Money page and BEP website are good places to learn more. But the above tests should be more than enough to confirm a bill’s authenticity.
     Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Art Williams produced bills that passed virtually all but the “feel” test, but counterfeiters like him are rare. That’s why I wrote about him!

—Jason Kersten