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10 Ways to Spot a Fake Bill—Before You Get Duped

It's easy to spot the telltale signs of counterfeit money if you know what to look for.

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Get a feel for it

One of the first things you might notice about a counterfeit bill is that it just feels…off. “They tend to be more glossy or have a more smooth feel,” says Trent Everett, Secret Service assistant to special agent in charge overseeing counterfeit operations. Unlike the cotton-linen blend that real dollars are made of, fake bills are often made of high-quality paper, says Susan Fortunato, supervisory counterfeit specialist for the Secret Service. (Don’t miss these 9 things you never knew about the Secret Service.)

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Look at the color

Using a typical inkjet printer, counterfeiters can have a hard time getting the color just right. The color might be brighter than it should be, but typically the fake bills will look a bit too dark, says Reichman.

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Test the color-changing sections

Take a bill of $10 or and look at the denomination number in the bottom right corner. It should appear copper when you hold straight up and down. Now tilt it 45 degrees away from you—the color will change to green on a real bill. If you happen to have a $100 note, pay attention to the brown picture of the Liberty Bell over a lighter brown inkwell. When you tilt the bill, that section will change, too. “The brown stays brown, and the bell jumps out because it turns green,” says Fortunato. If it stays one color, you have counterfeit money in your hands. Don’t miss these other 16 mind-blowing facts about money.

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Hold the bill to the light

Every note $5 and up has a couple of security features that aren’t always visible. Hold your bill against the light, though, and you’ll see some new developments. Each one has a security thread that goes in a straight line from top to bottom but on a different side of each note. Plus, you should also see a watermark of the same portrait that’s on the front of the bill—unless it’s an imposter. “In most counterfeits, those are missing altogether,” says Fortunato. Find out what the weird symbols on the dollar bill really mean.

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Check the portrait quality

U.S. mints use a process called intaglio printing to put the pictures on the bills. The ink goes in the engraved areas, instead of on the raised areas of the plate, like an inkjet would use. That’s why fake bills look flat, while real ones have an almost 3D quality, says Fortunato. “It’s sort of like looking at a painting vs. looking at a picture,” she says. “There’s a third dimension there that allows you to get more shading and a lifelike look.” Check out these 24 little-known talents of presidents, including the ones on your bills.

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Hunt for weird phrases

Normally the top right corner on the front says “the United States of America,” but at second glance, says Everett, you might notice some counterfeit money says something weird: “For Motion Picture Use Only.” By law, prop money made for movies needs to be either bigger or smaller than a real bill and have only one side printed. Some sets don’t follow those rules, though, and print convincing fake bills for the screen. Once filming wraps, that fake money could end up on e-commerce sites. Learn what the most expensive movie props ever have been.

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Check the border

Because the borders are so intricate, a counterfeiter’s bad print job might mess it up. “It could look dotty or not totally straight,” says Alex Reichman, founder of counterfeit detection and security solutions company The line could look blurry, or the color could be darker than normal. (Here’s how to tell if you own a nickel worth $3 million.)

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Pick at the fibers

Give the white space on your bill a close look. The cotton-linen blend U.S. currency is made of has little blue and red threads sitting randomly in each note, and sometimes the fibers will even poke out a bit. It might be hard to tell without a magnifying glass, but even if a fake bill looks like it has the strings, those “threads” are really just pictures printed flat on the counterfeit money. “If you look closely…you could scratch through it,” says Fortunato. “On a genuine bill, you would be able to pick it up out of the paper itself.”

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Compare the serial number to other bills

If you’re suspicious of the big stack of cash you just received, double check the security numbers. Most counterfeiters are making multiple copies of the same bills. Often they’ll have three or four originals, but some will have just one, meaning every fake note will have the same serial number. “It might be odd if multiple bills have the exact same serial number,” says Fortunato.

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Keep your guard up

Whether you’re holding a yard sale or selling an old car, be cautious when taking cash from strangers. Sure, you’ll want to be careful if you’re accepting hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash, but even little splurges could leave a chance you’re getting duped. “A big red flag is someone trying to purchase something of low value in high denominator bills and want change,” says Everett. Keep your eye out for the signs of counterfeit bills before you accept the money. Check out these other 11 tips for a successful yard sale.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.