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A wave of scams is producing a surge of counterfeit bills into circulation. Using cutting-edge technology, scammers create bills that look just like the real thing to the untrained eye. Unfortunately, once a scammer passes a counterfeit bill, the new owner can become liable for passing it on to someone else.

To combat the reach of counterfeit bills, the Secret Service and the U.S. Treasury have added several identifying features to legitimate dollar bills to help citizens and business owners determine whether they are authentic.

Here are some signs that can tell you if a bill is counterfeit or real:

A hologram of the face image on the bill:

When held up to the light, the hologram on the bill should match the face on the front of the bill. Scammers will often bleach a lower denomination bill and try to pass it off as a bill of a higher denomination. The interior hologram cannot change from bleaching the bill. So, if the $100 bill is a counterfeit bill created from a $5 one when the bill is held up to the light it will reveal the face of Abraham Lincoln. A $100 bill should reveal the face of Benjamin Franklin.

A thin vertical strip of text spelling out the bill’s denomination:

Holding the note up to the light will also display this sign of authenticity on genuine bills.

Color-shifting ink:

All new-series bills, except for the $5 bill, are designed with this trick. If you tilt the bill back and forth, the numeral in the lower right-hand corner will shift from green to black and back to green again.


The watermark of the bill is in the unprinted space to the right of the portrait when held up to the light.

Security thread:

When the bill is held up to the light, the security thread runs from the top of the face to the bottom. The security strip is to the right of the portrait on $10 and $50 bills. To the left of the portrait on $5s, $20s, and $100s.

Ultraviolet glow:

You’ll need an ultraviolet light for this to work, but it’s an instant reveal about the bill’s authenticity. When held up to ultraviolet light, $5 bills glow blue, $10 bills glow orange, $20 bills glow green, $50 bills glow yellow, and $100 bills glow red.


For yet another sign of a bill’s authenticity, you can look for tiny microprinting on the bill’s security thread. This spells out its denomination in all-caps text.

Fine-line printing patterns:

Look for very fine lines behind the portrait and on the other side of the bill as well.

What to do if you’ve received a counterfeit bill

If a note you have been passed does not hold up to the authenticity test, and you believe it’s a counterfeit bill, the U.S. Treasury advises the following course of action:

  • Do not put yourself in a position of danger.
  • Do not return the bill to the passer.
  • If possible, delay the passer with an excuse.
  • Take note of the passer’s physical appearance and record their vehicle license plate if possible.
  • Contact your local police department or call your local Secret Service office.
  • Write your initials and date in the white border area of the suspected counterfeit note.
  • Do not handle the counterfeit note. Place the note inside a protective cover, a plastic bag, or an envelope until you can pass it on to an identified Secret Service Special agent. You can also mail it to your nearest Secret Service office.

Counterfeit cash can be harder to spot than you think. If you have been passed a counterfeit bill, follow the advice of the U.S. Treasury to keep your hands clean.

Your Turn: Have you ever encountered a counterfeit bill? Tell us about it in the comments.

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