U.S. Markets open in 3 hrs 50 mins

In the Age of Digital Money, Counterfeit Bills Still a Problem

Geoff Williams

The money for the ambitious criminal is in identity theft, we've been led to believe, but dealing in counterfeit bills remains a thriving career path for the nation's underworld. In just the past few weeks, fake $100 bills turned up at a Kohl's department store and gas station in Albuquerque, N.M. (the counterfeiter was caught), a mall and a Dollar General store in Jonesboro, Ark. (one counterfeiter was caught; another, at the time of this writing, is still on the large), and a store in Bellevue, Wisc. (the counterfeiters are still on the run). Small wonder that the Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that a new $100 bill will be available to Americans on October 8, one with plenty of difficult-to-copy features that should separate serious counterfeiters from mere pretenders.

It almost seems quaint that in this day and age of digital money on debit and credit cards that counterfeit money could still be a problem. But plenty of consumers still use cash, and advances in technology have made it easier than ever for crooks to create counterfeit currency. In 2010, a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released a study estimating that approximately $61 million fake bills were circulating throughout the world.

[Read: Where to Be on the Lookout for Counterfeit Products.]

So if you worry at all about getting stuck with fake cash, here are a few helpful things to know.

Where you probably won't pick up a counterfeit bill. There are no guarantees in life, but you can pretty much bank on your bank.

"Most counterfeiting does not occur with professional cash handlers. Any thief with any smarts isn't going to take their counterfeit bills into a bank. It's too high of a risk," says Chadwick Wasilenkoff, founder and CEO of Fortress Paper, a specialty paper company based in Vancouver, Canada. Among other things, the company supplies banknote paper to Switzerland and is one of only nine authorized suppliers for the euro.

Interestingly enough, some experts have observed that money you receive at a casino is pretty safe from turning out to be counterfeit as well. It's true that counterfeit bills occasionally infiltrate a gambling hall, but the dealers at the card tables are trained to look for this sort of thing.

Where you may pick up a counterfeit bill. Bars and nightclubs, Wasilenkoff says, "because it's dark." He adds that counterfeiters also look for older cashiers at retailers (eyesight not as good) and teenagers (less experienced, and if at a fast food joint, rushed).

How you can spot a counterfeit bill. It isn't easy for the average consumer; that's why counterfeiting has been a go-to business for the criminal element since the 1700s. And it flourished during the Civil War. In 1865, four years after American paper money was created and circulated, the Secret Service was formed to keep counterfeiters at bay (protecting the President of the United States would come later).

[See The American Penny: How It's Stuck Around All These Years.]

According to the Secret Service web site (secretservice.gov), which has a lot of tips on spotting fake money, the portrait on paper bills should appear lifelike and stand out from the background. If Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton or whomever you're palling around with appears lifeless and flatter than usual, you may have a fake in your hands.

Another thing to check, which is fairly easy: The serial numbers should be evenly spaced and printed in the same ink color as the Treasury Seal.

Counterfeit bills while traveling. If you think recognizing fake American dollars is challenging, it's another story altogether when you're traveling abroad and managing money you've never or rarely seen before.

"Counterfeit euros run rampant in Europe," says Sheridan Becker, an American from New York who lives in Belgium and founded and edits "Bon Voyage," a family travel magazine aimed at expats in Europe. "Counterfeiting so easily happens over here in Europe, it's scary. Even a 50 euro note in just about every cash register in Europe, at least in Belgium, is scanned before the money is taken and accepted."

[See Oddball Crimes: 7 Strange Behaviors That Can Get You Fined.]

How do you avoid getting stuck with counterfeit cash? "I'd say use your credit card for the high-end expenses like hotel, car, trains and planes," Becker says.

But since you'll need some cash to pay tips and get around, she says if all possible, get your money from a bank.

"And be sure, by all means, to keep your receipt regarding the transaction," Becker says. This is good advice in any country you're in, whether on a trip or at home, to keep that receipt around for at least a little while. Although you aren't likely to go to jail for passing around counterfeit money, as long as it's clear you're a victim, without a receipt, you are likely to be the owner of a unique conversation piece: fake and worthless money.

But not for long. Given that the police will take your counterfeit bill for evidence, you won't even be an owner of that.

More From US News & World Report