What is Counterfeiting?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Counterfeiting refers to the imitation of something with the intent to deceive. As a general rule, people use the term specifically to refer to people who replicate currency in the hopes of passing it off as legal tender. However, a variety of things can be counterfeited, from designer handbags to legal documents. In terms of counterfeiting money, counterfeiting comes with severe consequences, as it is treated as a very serious crime in most nations around the world.

Watermarks are used as anti-counterfeiting features on U.S. federal reserve notes.
Watermarks are used as anti-counterfeiting features on U.S. federal reserve notes.

People have been counterfeiting money ever since money was developed. The Greeks and Romans, for example, shaved down legal coins, reducing their value, and used the shavings to cast new coins. Some enterprising counterfeiters used cheap alloys to imitate legal tender, while others cast a cheap base and then coated the coin in a metal like silver or gold in an attempt to pass it off as a real coin. When paper currency joined coin as a form of legal tender, counterfeiting exploded in many regions of the world, and it is a constant concern for many governments.

Computer graphic design programs allow counterfeiters today to print high quality bills that are harder to identify as counterfeit.
Computer graphic design programs allow counterfeiters today to print high quality bills that are harder to identify as counterfeit.

Most modern counterfeiting is focused on paper money, because paper money has a higher face value. Counterfeiters use a variety of techniques to produce replicas of the desired currency, depending on the security features which a nation uses to protect the integrity of its money and the level of realism desired. For example, a color photocopier can sometimes render a credible replica of legal currency, especially when the currency is run through a washer to age it, but counterfeiters may also use sophisticated printing techniques like those used at a national mint.

A color photocopier can sometimes render a credible replica of legal currency.
A color photocopier can sometimes render a credible replica of legal currency.

Most mints around the world use a number of safety systems to protect their money. For example, many nations print engraved money, meaning that specially engraved plates which are very hard to replicate are used in the production of currency. Many countries also use specialized papers and inks, along with complex designs which are hard to copy, and they may change the look of their currency frequently in an attempt to foil counterfeiters.

Someone who is convicted of counterfeiting will spend at least a decade in prison. He or she may also be forced to pay fines or restitution, and the property used in the counterfeiting process may be seized. Counterfeiting is treated as an extremely serious crime because it devalues a nation's currency, potentially threatening its economic stability and global standing.

Some counterfeiters coat coins in gold in an attempt to pass them off as real coins.
Some counterfeiters coat coins in gold in an attempt to pass them off as real coins.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Mykol - Your comment about counterfeit money always evolving and catching up with technology definitely provides some food for thought. But have you considered what might happen if, at some point, money is wiped out entirely and replaced by a virtual system of currency instead? I'm quite sure that would make it a lot harder for criminals to counterfeit because the banking institutes would latch on immediately.


@nefret - I see what you're saying, but would it still be considered counterfeit if it's only somewhat similar to the originals and does not bear a copy of their logos? Besides that, perhaps it's a sign to the original designer companies that many of the public just aren't ready to buy at their high prices.


@manykitties2 - Fake designer bags and clothing are a different type of counterfeiting but it's still wrong all the same. The main reason why is because these other companies take the design from the original company without their permission. In other words, they are stealing artistic property, not to mention, infringing on copyrights. There are many of these illegal companies that go so far as to copy well-known logos too!


Since most people have a computer, scanner and printer in their own home, the process of making counterfeit money is much easier than it used to be. Along with that also comes more sophisticated equipment that can identify it easier.

I think the price you would pay if you got caught would be way too much to pay for most people, but there are still a lot of people who try to get away with it.

Ever since man has been using money and currency to buy and sell goods, there have been dishonest people who try to get away with cheating someone. I doubt that this will ever be any different, but the process of making the counterfeit money will probably continue to evolve as technology keeps changing.


When I worked as a teller in a bank, we were trained to watch for counterfeit money. During some of our training sessions we were shown what a counterfeit bill looked and felt like.

If you didn't know specifically what you were looking for, you would not be able to tell them apart. If even you do know what to watch out for, many times it is hard to tell with the naked eye.

This is something that I never came across when I was handling the paper money, but there is more being circulated than what most people realize.


Counterfeiting pretty much anything is still pretty rampant in a lot of countries in Asia. While a lot of governments are doing more to crackdown on it, in places like China and Thailand, it is very easy to get anything you can imagine as a knockoff.

I must admit that I actually love hunting for bargains, even if I know the products aren't legit. To be perfectly honest, I don't see how buying a fake designer bag really impacts anyone. It is not like I would be buying the original $5000 bag in the first place. Also, my $50 version is just borrowing the general style. I doubt anyone would think it was actually real.

I think that governments are too busy going after the wrong things. They should be more concerned about the sweatshops making the so-called designer wear in the first place.


When I was working in retail one of the first things we were taught was how to check for counterfeit bills. We all had special machines we could use to scan bills and they would allow us to see the fibers embedded in true bills. The fibers looked like they glowed a bit. Of course, checking for things like watermarks was also part of the gig.

We only had to check bills $50 and over, but occasionally we would get in some suspect bills that just felt off. I remember one person trying to pass a fake $20 and it just felt too thin, despite looking pretty good. We simply refused to take it.


I have never come across counterfeit money in the US, but it has happened to me when visiting abroad.

One time I was at an airport leaving a country and decided to buy a bottle of water. The salesperson took a look at my money for maybe a second and told me that it's counterfeit. I was shocked!

I have no idea who gave it to me, probably one of the shops that I purchased from that week. I don't want to blame anyone because I think they might not have been aware that it was counterfeit. I sure didn't notice.

Anyway, the person at the airport told me to tear it up and throw it out right away as I could get in trouble if the airport police noticed it. I did that.

I wonder how many counterfeit bills circulate in a country without people noticing?

The bad part is, when you do notice and have to throw it out, you are literally losing money.


In England counterfeiting high value notes is such an issue many shops won't even accept anything over twenty pounds. Even with those they'll hold them to the light or use a special pen on them. I would never knowingly pass on fake cash but I still feel guilty when they do the checks.

I have a friend who unwittingly tried to buy groceries at a large supermarket with counterfeit money. The police and shop staff were kind and sympathetic but at the end of the day he still lost out.


It always seems really easy in retrospect when you read about what famous counterfeiters do. Like the guy from Catch Me If You Can, who used to forge checks.

It seems like something anyone could have done. Of course, now it is much more difficult, but every now and then you hear about someone who managed to trick the system.

The thing is, I guess it just doesn't even occur to most people that they should look for that kind of opportunity.

People generally just expect the world to be fairly trustworthy, and they act somewhat trustworthy in response.


Counterfeiting is one of the reasons you sometimes see people in historical films biting down on gold coins.

Back when metal was the only safe way to pay for things, people would just melt down gold and mix it with other, cheaper metals like copper or iron. It could be hard to tell whether a coin was pure gold.

One way you could tell, was if the coin started to rust at all as gold won't do that. But of course, you couldn't do that in the moment of sale.

So, people would bite the coin to see how soft it was. Pure gold is much softer than most other metals, so if it wasn't soft enough to make a mark, it probably wasn't gold.


thanks for all the research! it was a lot of help with my report for college!!!!!

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