American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society



Funny Money: The Fight of the US Secret Service Against Counterfeit Money

How It Is Made, How It Moves

As soon as there were coins, there were people making counterfeits. In attempts to foil counterfeiters, issuing authorities have continually added design elements to money to make counterfeiting more difficult. Today US currency is made with many important security features, which allow the user to check the authenticity of a note. Watermarks, security threads, color-shifting ink, special paper, signatures, the US Seal, and unique numbering all help to determine the authenticity of a note.

Despite all efforts to prevent counterfeiting, counterfeiters in the US and abroad produce currency and put it into circulation. Traditionally, counterfeits are made by offset printing. Counterfeiters need to acquire heavy machinery in order to undertake offset printing; the right kind of ink is also needed as well as expert production of printing plates. Procuring the right paper is another challenge. This is often achieved by bleaching genuine $1 notes. Such counterfeiting requires serious financial investment to purchase equipment and supplies.

For the last decade, counterfeiting has moved increasingly towards using digital scanners, computers and inkjet printers, which are available with little expense or effort. At a quick glance such notes appear highly convincing and can pass without detection. However, inkjet printing, which mixes four base colors, is a fundamentally different process from the printing method by which genuine notes are produced, and such counterfeit notes can be detected when examined under a loupe.

Just as most US currency circulates abroad, so most counterfeit currency is also produced abroad. South America, parts of Southern and Eastern Europe and the Far East are regions with active counterfeiting rings, which the Secret Service works constantly to break up. Often counterfeit notes are detected when they enter the country via the US mail or other carriers. Large amounts of counterfeits are also smuggled into the country by visitors.