Counterfeit money is as old as money itself. The Roman Empire had it, and in the US it dates back to the Civil War. It still goes on today. Everybody wants or needs more money, but rather than earning it the old fashioned way, crooks make their own.

Usually, they win - they're rarely caught - and consumers like us are the big losers.

Counterfeiting Basics

Counterfeiting, in general, is creating a fake or imitation copy of something valuable and passing it off as the real McCoy, from fake goods to phony money. It's the classic scam. Get something for little or nothing. Someone who can't find or keep a job and can't pay the rent or buy groceries may make some money and pay for what's needed.

Sometimes, it's someone who can't find or keep a job and can't pay the rent or buy groceries may make some money and pay for what's needed. And, sometimes, it's someone who just wants to see if they can get away with it. History shows that in tough economic times counterfeiters are more brazen to make money off of others who are too trusting.

For example, in 2011:

  • Someone in South Carolina used fake $100 bills to pay court fines. This person committed some undisclosed crime and paid the fines by committing another crime!? The police should be able to identify the person quickly, but catching the person may be a problem
  • In Pennsylvania, two men agreed to plead guilty to federal counterfeiting charges for possessing over $38,000 in counterfeit $100 bills
  • In North Carolina, a man was convicted for creating and distributing $7 million in US Dollar coins

Crime & Punishment

Today, as soon as our currency changes, computer and printer technologies make it easier and easier to create fake money. It’s illegal to make, possess or sell equipment, tools or materials for use in making counterfeit coins and currency. Violating the federal law may mean a fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Most states have laws on counterfeit money, too. In New York, for example, it's illegal to possess or use counterfeit money if you know it's counterfeit and intend to defraud someone. Violators face up to 15 years in state prison or a fine.

Who Pays? We Do

Unfortunately, counterfeiters aren't always caught. Once fake money gets into the stream of commerce it's usually hard to track down the source. Just think how much cash changes hands everyday in stores and banks.

In the end, consumers like you and me pay the price. If you find counterfeit money in your wallet, you can't use it if you know it's counterfeit. There's no refund, either. Banks, stores and law enforcement officers will confiscate counterfeit money and have no legal obligation to replace your fake money with real money.

Also, businesses are in the same position: It's lost money to them. However, they may recoup those losses by increasing what they charge us for their goods and services. So, again, the consumer loses in the end.

Protect Yourself from Counterfeits

Everyone can take steps to protect themselves against counterfeiters:

  • Be familiar with US money. Which President's picture is on which bill or coin; where serial number and signatures are supposed to be; and special anti-counterfeiting measures used by the US Treasury
  • Compare it to an original. If you're suspicious about an item, compare it to a genuine item of the same denomination. Look for oddities in the pictures and words, like blurs or smears. Check to make sure each of the items on the bills are the same - corners, presidents, serial number font, etc.
  • Use a counterfeit pen to test paper money. This is common in stores in banks, but it's not fool proof. For instance, in the Pennsylvania case, the pens didn't reveal the money as counterfeit
  • Coins may be weighted differently. Inspect coins the same as paper money, but they also should be weighed, especially high value coins - gold, platinum and silver
  • Ask for another bill. If a bill looks suspicious to you right from the start, ask the cashier or bank teller for another bill before you leave the bank or store

For businesses:

  • Know how to recognize fake cash and coins. Provide regular training about what new currency is being used
  • Counterfeit money insurance. Business owners should look into purchasing special insurance to help cover losses due to counterfeit money

If You Find Counterfeits

If you think you have counterfeit bill or coin in your wallet or cash register:

  • Call our local police department and the local office of the US Secret Service
  • Write down everything you can remember about when, where and from whom you may have received the counterfeit
  • Place the counterfeit in a plastic bag to protect it from damage and to preserve any evidence on it that may help identify where it came from, like fingerprints or DNA
  • If you have a paper bill, write your initials and the date in the white border areas of bill; if it's a coin, write the information on the bag you're storing it in

You work hard for your money, and it doesn't feel good when you lose some through no fault of your own. But if you come across counterfeit money, it's best to take the loss than run the risk of passing it off to get your money back.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to give a customer a different bill if the customer thinks one I gave as change is counterfeit?
  • Can someone be charged with counterfeiting if he's arrested for some other offense and a fake bill is found in his wallet, but he had no idea the bill was fake?
  • Is it illegal to use counterfeit US money in another country?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, counterfeit money, criminal lawyer