Is there an easy way for a regular person to find out if $100 bills (and $50s and $20s) are legit, without one of those special pen things?
Real or fake?
Now, there are numerous ways to tell if a bill is fake without one of those “special pen things,” but I’m going to be “that guy” for a minute and point out that they are only about $5 on Amazon.com.
If you’re planning on having a yard sale or Craigslisting a bunch of stuff (two very common scenarios for counterfeiters to try to pass fake cash) this is a very, very cheap form of insurance.
Yes, they have their faults. If a bill has been through the wash, it may give a false negative, and very sophisticated fakes might still fool them.
So what can you do when you’re getting that change back for your Big Mac? The good news is some observational skills, knowledge, and a bit of common sense will allow you to pick out most of the copycat cash.
Check your bills
Here’s a partial list of steps you can take:
Feel the texture of the bill. Take a minute and rub the paper between your hands. You may not handle as much cash as a bank teller does, but you’ve probably handled enough to pick out a poor fake. Genuine US cash has a slightly raised ink and you should be able to feel this by running your fingertips over it, especially if it’s a new(er) bill.
Compare it with another of the same denomination. Just got a $20 back and you’re not sure about it? Pull another $20 out of your wallet and look at them both side by side. Since everything but $1 and $2 bills have been redesigned at least once in the last 20 years, this works best with a bill of the same series.
Check out the printing quality. Real cash is printed with techniques that most counterfeiters are unable to duplicate. A good area to look at is the portrait. Are the lines sharp and distinct? Or do the fine details blur together and appear unsharp?
Pay attention to the serial numbers. Do the numbers match? Are the numbers perfectly spaced and aligned, or are they a little wiggly? Those are two sure signs of a fake. Also, if you got more than one of a denomination you’re suspicious about… are the numbers the same on both bills? Every bill has a unique serial number.
Look for the security features. On all bills larger than $2, hold the bill up to the light and look for the security thread (a plastic strip running from top to bottom, embedded in the paper). It’s in a different location on each denomination, so be sure to compare to another bill to see if it’s been bleached and reprinted. Also, all bills $10 and larger have color-shifting ink — just tilt the bill to see if the color changes.
Where to find out more
These are only a small handful of ways you can determine the legitimacy of a bill. I strongly encourage you to visit the United States Secret Service “Know Your Money” page for a full and current rundown on all US currency security features, as well as info on what to do if you suspect you have a counterfeit bill.
The treasury also has a NewMoney.gov site to show you the details of the newest batches of bills, offering ever more security features (as seen on this page).
So the good news: With some caution, observation, and basic knowledge, you should be able to spot all but the most sophisticated fakes.