It was just another steamy summer day in Universal Studios. The Florida heat and humidity was nothing out of the ordinary for the locals, but the thousands of tourists in the park were not accustomed to such harsh elements. The weather had a way of driving these park-goers into the numerous stores spread across the vast theme park. Guests of all nationalities and backgrounds rushed into the gift shops in hopes of finding a blast of refreshing AC and perhaps a few souvenirs. Among the hordes of people seeking refuge in the stores were the dreaded South American tour groups. These tour groups were filled with loud teenagers from a wide array of countries in Latin America, and could be spotted a mile away. They were all dressed in matching, brightly colored t-shirts, and traveled in droves chanting peppy (and extremely annoying) songs in Spanish. The group leaders carried bright flags and banners, and waved them around as they marched down the streets. These groups were notoriously loud and destructive; picking up and tossing around as much merchandise as they could find. It was as if they were an army, instilling fear in the employees of whichever gift shop they ventured into. On this particular day, one such tour group from Argentina made its way into the store where I worked. As my co-workers and I frantically attempted to check out the endless line of rambunctious teenagers at the registers, I noticed a commotion at the register next to mine. I glanced over, and saw a young girl of about fourteen with tears streaming down her face, leaving tiny puddles staining her bright blue shirt. I decided to take a brief pause from my work, and watch the events unfold. I noticed that my co-worker, Jen, was holding what appeared to be a normal $100 bill. This bill, however, had a dark black line running horizontally across it, which could only mean one thing: it was counterfeit. Jen had followed standard procedure and run a counterfeit pen across the bill to see the ink turn from yellow to black (check out this video if you want to learn more about how to detect counterfeit bills). By now, park security as well as the sobbing girls’ tour guide had arrived at the register. The young girl didn’t seem to know that the bill was counterfeit, and was merely crying because she was afraid of being in trouble in a strange and foreign country. Security proceeded to escort the girl and her chaperone out of the store in order to be questioned, and that was the end of the excitement.
Before I worked at Universal Studios Orlando, I had never seen a counterfeit bill. I knew that they existed, of course, but I figured they were a rare occurrence and not something I would ever have to deal with.
One might have considered the scenario I witnessed a one-time ordeal, yet that wasn’t the case. I continued to see guests being caught with counterfeit bills, which continually baffled me. I proceeded to have questions arise regarding counterfeit money. How do people obtain counterfeits? What happens if the business doesn’t catch these fakes and accepts the money? What happens to the individual in possession of the counterfeit? It became my goal to dig deeper into the world of counterfeiting and learn what I could.
To truly understand currency and counterfeits, it helps to take a look back at the history of American currency. The U.S. Currency Education Program is here just for this reason. This reliable source tells the story of how it all started in 1690 with Colonial Notes, which were issued by the Massachusetts Bay colony to fund military expeditions. Soon after, the other colonies began to follow suit and use paper currency. At this early point in history, people already began the process of creating counterfeit notes. The Colonial Notes were extremely easy to replicate, which led to the first anti-counterfeit measures in American History. Benjamin Franklin was actually the individual who took on the task of creating a solution to the counterfeiting problem. In 1739, Franklin used his printing firm in Philadelphia to create notes with unique, raised patterns made from actual leaves, which made it much harder to replicate the notes. The next major breakthrough occurred in 1861, when the Department of the Treasury began issuing “Green-backs”, which are still valid and redeemable today. By 1862, currency began to include serious counterfeit deterrence measures, such as “fine-line engraving, intricate geometric lathe work patterns, a U.S. Department of the Treasury seal, and engraved signatures” (U.S. Currency Education, “The Foundation of Modern Design”). Then in 1865, the U.S. Secret Service was established solely to deter counterfeits, a task that they still carry out today. However, counterfeits continued to circulate. In 1929, a major change occurred to all bills. A standardized design for bills was created, which made it much easier for the population to distinguish between counterfeit and real notes.
With the emergence of new technology, another major change was made in 1990. A security thread and microprinting were introduced to deter counterfeiting by copiers and printers. The features first appeared in 1990 as $100 notes. By 1993, the new security features appeared on all bills except $1 and $2 notes. In 1996 all the notes underwent a new currency design. Most recently, in 2013, the $100 bill added a 3-D security Ribbon and color shifting bell. New counterfeit measures are always being taken, and we can consistently see this throughout the history of America and its currency.
How many counterfeit bills are in circulation? I can’t help but question how many of the trillions of dollars in America are not dollars at all, but merely forged replicas.
According to Counterfeit Cash – Fake Money: Stats Infographic, in 2011 alone there was $261 million in counterfeit cash removed from circulation worldwide. According to CNBC in a report from 2015, there is still about $147 million in fake U.S. currency circulating globally, and about 60 percent of that is actually within the United States. According to Ruth Judson and Richard Porter in Estimating the Volume of Counterfeit U.S. Currency in Circulation Worldwide: Data and Extrapolation, there was approximately $56.2 million in fake currency passed in America in 2005. Judson and Porter also stated that counterfeit money was not nearly as much of a concern as check fraud, which came as quite a surprise to me. I had never even considered the possibility of check fraud being a problem, and this opened my eyes to the fact that there are even more methods to counterfeiting than simply making fake bills.
I have always wondered how people came to be in possession of counterfeit bills. One day while I was on the job, I saw one of the known Loss Prevention officers walking around. These officers deal with thievery and counterfeit money on a daily basis, so I figured this would be a good chance to get some inside knowledge. After introducing myself, I asked how so many people acquire fake bills in the first place. The LPO (Loss Prevention officer) explained to me that a lot of the tourists are given fake bills at tourist attractions all over town, and they are completely unaware that it’s fake. “A lot of these guests that are traveling here from another country don’t know our money”, he told me. “It’s incredibly easy for scammers who make and distribute fake bills to give these tourists counterfeits when they visit sketchy attractions in places like International Drive. The scammers make money off of these unsuspecting tourists and avoid being caught since they aren’t passing the bills directly themselves”. But how do these scammers get the fake dollars? It can’t be that easy to get counterfeit bills, can it?
After one quick Google search, I discovered it can be that easy. By simply typing in “how to make counterfeit money”, countless sites and videos pop up giving you step-by-step instructions on how to make your very own “funny money”. One site I decided to look at blew my mind. “Making Novelty (Fake) Money That Passes the Pen” is one of many guides on how to create your own counterfeits. This guide was posted by an anonymous user on a blog, and in it there is a list of steps on how to turn legitimate $1 bills into $20 bills. It was as if I were reading from a cook book written by criminals. The author includes lists of supplies to use, as well as each step in creating the fakes. I discovered it’s as simple as cleaning off the ink from the $1 bills and using a photo copier/printer to turn them into $20 bills. Due to the fact that the paper is from real currency, a counterfeit pen that is used on the bill will not turn black, leading those who accept the bill to believe that it is indeed real. I felt disgusted reading the article, knowing that this tactic may have been used on me while I worked as a cashier. I then decided to take a look at the comments on the article, and saw people claiming how it had worked for them. I also saw a large posting from a suspicious user offering to sell fake currency from a number of different countries, as well as fake passports and driver licenses. I had no idea information like this existed so publicly, and I was utterly baffled and disturbed by the fact that things like this are all over the internet for anyone to see.
All I hoped was that the government wasn’t flagging me that instant for viewing such suspicious information.
As I recall, every time someone is discovered trying to pay with counterfeit bills in my work place, they are escorted away by security. From what I have been told, the culprit is then questioned by security as to where/how they came to acquire the bill. However, I had no idea what happens after this. Is the perpetrator fined? Can they face jail time? These unanswered questions lead me to the next important topic: What are the laws and penalties related with passing counterfeit bills? According to federalcharges.com, counterfeiting laws are covered under Title 18, Chapter 25 of the US code: “Section 471 focuses on the counterfeiting of securities of the US, and puts forth a very harsh penalty of fines and up to 20 years in prison”. This source tells us that the charges and sentencing varies from case to case, and is dependent on whether you are simply carrying counterfeit bills, or whether you are actually making and distributing fake currency. This source also states that, “Counterfeiting is a federal crime, and knowingly trying to pass counterfeit bills or goods off as real, creating counterfeit items, trafficking them, or having any other relation to counterfeit items will result in felony charges in almost all instances.” A felony is a very serious charge, and is characterized as being punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year. According to the statute, counterfeiting can lead to charges of up to $250,000 and 25 years in prison (US Code, Title 18, Chapter 25, Section 471). Obviously, the charges for forgery/counterfeiting can be very serious. However, the punishment is going to vary from case to case based on the specific details. Things such as past criminal history and the financial gain/loss of someone else can have a big impact on the sentencing of a counterfeit charge.
Over time, slight changes have been made here and there in order to strengthen our currency against counterfeiting attempts. The National Research Council was established in 1916 and has since aided the federal government in research and development in regard to matters of science and technology. In 1993, this council conducted research and put forth new counterfeit protection measures for U.S. Currency in
“Counterfeit Deterrent Features for the Next-Generation Currency Design”. One such measure was the addition of water marks and special marks that can only be seen under a UV light (Chapter 5, page 88). Special ink is used on the bill where these images, such as a president’s face, are only visible under certain light. This is a good security measure due to the fact that it is difficult for counterfeiters to copy. The National Research Council also proposed real world application and testing of the new bills in order to see how well they hold up against counterfeiters. These bills are still in use today, so obviously the council did a good job with their recommendations.
It’s just another steamy day in Florida as I walk through the doors of the 7-11 gas station. I grab a soda from the cooler in the back of the store, and make my way up to the cash register. I swipe my card and elect to receive $10 cash back. As the cashier pulls the bill out of the register and hands it to me, my eyes glide back and forth across the bill, dissecting every aspect of it. Lately, I find myself closely examining any bill that I come across. It almost seems like a second nature to me now. I can’t help but see cash in a different light; to be aware that any bill I touch may not be real. There is a checklist emblazoned in my mind: Is there a water mark? Do the serial numbers on the bill match the corresponding number and letter? Are there raised ridges that I can feel on the collar of whichever president’s face I’m looking at? There are times when I wish I could be less skeptical of every dollar that I see, and forget all about fake money.
After all, they say that ignorance is bliss.
“Counterfeit Cash – Fake Money: Stats Infographic.” Made of Money, 9 June 2012,
National Research Council. “‘Counterfeit Deterrent Features for the Next-Generation Currency
Design’ at NAP.edu.” Front Matter, National Academy Press, 1993, www.nap.edu/read/2267/chapter/1.
“Counterfeiting Laws, Charges &Amp; Statute of Limitations …” Federal Charges,
Federalcharges.com, 2016, www.federalcharges.com/counterfeiting-laws-charges/
Judson, Ruth, and Richard Porter. “Estimating the Volume of Counterfeit U.S. Currency in
Circulation Worldwide: Data and Extrapolation.” Financial Institutions and Markets, 2010, doi:10.1057/9780230117365_11.
“Making novelty (fake) money that passes the pen.”
MAKING NOVELTY (FAKE) MONEY THAT PASSES THE PEN, 2011, makingfakemoney.blogspot.com/.
U.S. Currency Education Program. “The History of American Currency.” U.S. Currency
Education Program, U.S. Government, uscurrency.gov/history-american-currency.
Wells, Nicholas. “Can You Tell the Fake Bill from a Real One?” CNBC, CNBC, 3 Sept. 2015,