Ferreting Out Funny Money:
Fighting Counterfeiting

By Scott Roeben

American currency is universally accepted and trustedwhich may explain why it is so often the target of counterfeiting. While the amount of counterfeit currency in circulation is actually very small (a mere 3/100ths of one percent of our total currency), counterfeiting is a growing threat, especially in light of the proliferation of digital scanners, color copiers, high quality printers and profoundly stupid convenience store clerks.

The U.S. Treasury Department has taken a number of steps to thwart the efforts of counterfeiters. Here, we will review the latest in anti-counterfeiting measures employed by those entrusted with preserving the integrity of our national currency.

The Watermark

While the watermark is a fairly recent addition to American currency, foreign countries have used this device for some time, and it has proved extremely effective as a deterrent to would-be counterfeiters.

The watermark is created during the paper-making process, and can be viewed from either side of the bill when held up to the light. The watermark is extremely difficult for counterfeiters to duplicate, even with the most sophisticated equipment.

Below is a magnified, backlit view of the watermark on the $20 bill.


Microprinting uses advanced printing techniques to create text on currency that becomes legible only under extreme magnification. The tiny type is often overlooked even under the most discerning scrutiny and defies counterfeiting because it becomes blurred and distorted when copied.

On the $20 note, microprinting appears in the areas highlighted below.

The following is a portion of the $20 bill at 400x magnification.


When government officials sought new features to deter counterfeiting, more than 120 security features were examined and tested, including techniques used in other nations' currencies.

One feature that has proven especially effective is the intentional misspelling of a word on the face of the $20 bill. Unsuspecting counterfeiters, notoriously poor proofreaders, often ignore this subtle misspelling and engrave the correct spelling onto the plates used to produce their bogus bills, thus alerting banking and government officials to their wrongdoing.

The bill segment shown below is a close-up of the official, Treasury-sanctioned text.

You should immediately check your personal currency to make sure you have not been the victim of counterfeiters.

Color-Shifting Ink

Another innovative feature of the newest generation of American currency is the use of color-shifting ink. The ink is used in the numeral in the lower right-hand corner on the front of the $20 bill. The "color-shifting" ink makes the numeral look green when viewed straight on, but black when viewed at an angle.

While color-shifting ink has proven a highly beneficial addition to the Treasury Department's efforts, it should be noted there have been some serious adverse effects due to the use of the ink. Medical authorities have confirmed that while the color-shifting ink has no negative impact when viewed on currency directly, it has serious, tragic effects when viewed via electronic means. Specifically, the ink's peculiar reflective quality has been proven to cause permanent retinal damage, often leading to declining vision over time and eventually total blindness (and in some cases insanity). Therefore, citizens should show extraordinary care to never, ever view the color-shifting ink on television, or even worse, on a computer monitor.

Hidden Images

Another interesting security feature of the $20 bill is the use of "hidden images." These images are integrated into the design of the bill, exploiting the tendency of the human eye to "substitute" familiar patterns for unfamiliar ones, and in many cases to simply overlook details our subconscious deems irrelevant. Hidden images add a layer of complexity to the unauthorized replication of currency.

Below are the locations of these (until recently closely guarded) hidden images, as well as magnifications of the image areas.

Hidden Image #1

Hidden Image #2

Hidden Image #3

The Low-Vision Feature

While not a security feature, per se, the low-vision feature on $20 bills is a recent innovation that warrants mention.

On the back side of $20 bills printed since 1998, a large, dark numeral has been included for people with low vision to assist in identifying the denomination.

In order to accommodate other special groups, the following refinements are also currently under consideration.

For dyslexics:

For bulimics:

For animal lovers:

For pyromaniacs:

Security Thread

The security thread is an embedded polymer strip, positioned in a unique spot for each bill denomination. The thread is visible when held up to a bright light and contains microprinting (as previously discussed).

Another interesting feature of the security strip is that when viewed under ultraviolet light, the thread glows a distinctive color for each denomination. If nothing else, this serves to prove the term "interesting" is used far too indiscriminately in our society.


Counterfeiting hurts us all. No, not the kind of hurt you get when you slam your privates in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, but a big hurt nonetheless.

We all have the responsibility of remaining vigilant about the currency we give and receive. If you come across a questionable bill, consult an experienced money handler. Anyone but a bank teller. It is clear they have no interest in dealing directly with human beings.

If you discover you are in possession of a counterfeit bill, contact the nearest U.S. Secret Service office or local police. Surrender the bill only to these agencies. Rest assured these respected government representatives will be very understanding about your being in possession of a counterfeit bill and the ensuing cavity search should be relatively painless.

Remember, anyone convicted of passing a counterfeit may be fined as much as $5,000 or imprisoned for up to 15 years. (On a more pleasant note, you should feel free to pay the attorney handling your case in funny money. They love that.)

Scott Roeben, 2003. All rights reserved.

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