How Counterfeiting Works

The Importance of Paper

People know what money feels like. People who handle money constantly, like bank tellers, cashiers and waitstaff, can feel a counterfeit bill instantly if the paper is wrong.

That "feel of money" comes from at least three different things that make the paper in paper bills unique:

  • Normal paper that you use on a day-to-day basis (newspaper, notebook paper, paper in books, etc.) is made from the cellulose found in trees. Paper used for money, on the other hand, is made from cotton and linen fibers. This kind of paper is known as rag paper. One big advantage of using rag paper is the fact that it does not disintegrate if you accidentally run paper money through a washing machine.
  • The paper used for money is thin compared to normal paper.
  • The paper used for money is squeezed with thousands of pounds of pressure during the printing process. This makes it even thinner and gives newly made bills a special crispness.

The other special thing about the rag paper used in real money is that there are tiny blue and red fibers mixed into the paper when it is made. These fibers are easy to find in real money, but they are so fine that they do not reproduce very well in the counterfeit money from your inkjet printer.

The last thing a counterfeiter wants to do is print counterfeit money on "normal" printer paper. It will feel all wrong, and it can be detected with a counterfeit pen. These special pens, which often look something like a highlighter, contain iodine that changes color when it comes in contact with cellulose. At the very least, you need to try to find thin rag paper to print on. You can find this kind of paper at most office supply stores.

However, the paper still may not feel right. That's why some counterfeiters go the extra mile to get the perfect paper. The ultimate counterfeit bill would use the same paper used by the government. This paper, however, is nearly impossible to buy.

Yet, if you hunt around the Internet (I used the Google search engine), you can find hundreds of articles similar to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer. This particular article describes a large-scale counterfeiter named Ricky Scott Nelson who produced and successfully distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fake cash. He found a very good source of realistic paper. According to the article:

"Nelson took [actual] $1 and $5 notes and, using tape, masked some of the genuine images such as the Treasury and Federal Reserve Seals, serial numbers, and the "This note is legal tender" advisory. The masked bills were then soaked in bleach to remove the images and denomination numbers ... Nelson then created a template that enabled him to photocopy images and detail from $50 and $100 notes onto the bleached areas of the original currency."

­The image from the photocopier, apparently, was "good enough" to pass inspection with the naked eye. The use of real paper got around the feel problem. As a bonus, the bleached bills contained real, unique serial numbers.

But that still leaves a question -- what did he do about the color-shifting ink? Surely he did not pass all $800,000 in nightclubs. He would have had to find a source for the special ink, plus a way to print it.