Retailers detect fake bills by looking at watermarks. The rudimentary watermark to the right of Ben Franklin’s face shows this bill is fake.

As manager of Ent Credit Union in Monument, Cindy Abrams has seen more counterfeit cash in the last two months than she’s seen in the previous 13 years working in financial institutions.

“In the last month, we’ve caught probably close to 10 counterfeit bills,” she said. “It’s been pretty bad up here.”

Ent Credit Union invested in Arca machines that detect counterfeit cash as it sorts and counts the money. The machine resembles a playing card shuffling machine. In a matter of a few seconds, it singled out one false $100 bill from more than $1,000 sent through.

“All the sensors can detect every feature on a bill and tell that this is not correct,” Abrams said.

If the Arca singles out a bill as either counterfeit or so badly damaged it should not be used, Abrams directs her staff to send it through again. If the machine rejects a bill twice, she tells the teller to hold it up to the light and compare it with authentic currency. Holding it to the light will often show security features of genuine cash. If the money is fake, it is sent to the U.S. Secret Service, which is the global repository for counterfeit U.S. currency.

In Colorado last year, the Secret Service received around $1 million in counterfeit cash, or about 1 percent of all the fake money the agency received, said Shawn Holtzclaw, staff assistant in the public affairs department at Secret Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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And that’s money lost to businesses. Banks and credit unions do not honor counterfeit bills; the depositors lose the money. The financial institutions send the fake bills to the Secret Service, which catalogues them in an effort to catch the creators of counterfeit cash.


The difference between counterfeit and legitimate federal reserve notes can often be detected visually, said Holtzclaw, who encouraged people to become familiar with authentic cash. He suggested studying information online to learn how to detect fakes.

“Two-thirds of the counterfeit are ink jet notes, something people make at home on their computers and printers,” he said. “If you don’t know what to look for, you don’t know there’s a security thread, markers, those things that can be seen with the naked eye.”

He advised people to feel the bill, because real money is made from a combination of cotton and linen.

“Money should not feel like paper,” he said

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces cash at a cost of 10 cents per bill. New designs use color-shifting ink, a watermark, security microfibers and a security thread interwoven into the paper. The ink on the $20 insignia at the bottom right of an authentic $20 bill bill shimmers between green and copper.

“Those are just a few things you can see with the naked eye that can help detect counterfeit,” Holtzclaw said.

At Ent, Abrams has seen bleached, washed bills that have been reprinted into higher denominations. Counterfeit-detecting pens — frequently used in retail centers to detect fake bills — will not flag these bills because they are made of the same materials as an authentic bill.

The Secret Service says businesses should not rely on the pens because they are not 100 percent foolproof — sometimes they give false positives and false negatives, said Kerry O’Grady, special agent in charge in the Denver Secret Service division.

But Abrams said while her experience shows the Arca machines are reliable, she double checks anyway.

“When someone brings me a bill [that the Arca has rejected], the first thing I look at are the eyes. Can you see the pupils? If you really see the detail in the eyes, 99 percent of the time, it’s a good bill,” Abrams said.

The security markers are a modern addition to national currency. During the Civil War era, banks issued their own form of paper currency, which could be easily counterfeited. Congress authorized the creation of a uniform currency for the country in 1861-62, according to President Abraham Lincoln saw an increasing need to oversee authentic currency and clamp down on counterfeiters, so he created the U.S. Secret Service to track down fake bills and their creators.

Counterfeit money has been circulating in Monument recently, according to Ent’s Cindy Abrams.
Counterfeit money has been circulating in Monument recently, according to Ent’s Cindy Abrams.

Business experience

Counterfeit bills come from all types of business, fast food restaurants to large chain retail stores, said Abrams.

It’s not unusual for ANB Bank to receive up to seven fake bills during the course of two weeks, said Lauren Kupfner, regional senior operations officer.

“We did have what seemed like an increase over a couple weeks in $100s for sure,” she said. “We were catching more six to eight weeks ago, but it’s leveled off.”

Domino’s Pizza in Monument received a counterfeit bill recently from a delivery, said Manager Charles Foor, who said, “I don’t think it would have made it through with the managers in the store.”

To detect an authentic bill, Foor feels the texture built into the engraving of the presidents’ shirts.

The counterfeit was the first he’s seen in the three years he’s worked at the Monument store.

The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has seen only a few fake bills during the past few years, said Peggy Gare, public relations director. Most transactions at the park are electronic, she said.


Overall, counterfeit bills represent a small portion of currency exchanges.

“There is a [one in 10,000] chance you will end up handling a counterfeit note, even less in the state of Colorado, compared to other areas domestically,” Holtzclaw said.

Of the estimated $1.3 trillion in U.S. currency circulating worldwide, the Secret Service seized $51.5 million in counterfeit cash overseas and $6.8 million domestically he said. The agency differentiates between seizures and receipts of counterfeit bills; it seizes fake money through warrants and arrests, and receives counterfeit money through the mail and when banks, citizens and local police departments transfer it to the Secret Service.