01
Sep 14

Fun With Funny Money

Readers or “fans” of this blog have sent some pretty crazy stuff to my front door over the past few years, including a gram of heroin, a giant bag of feces, an enormous cross-shaped funeral arrangement, and a heavily armed police force. Last week, someone sent me a far less menacing package: an envelope full of cash. Granted, all of the cash turned out to be counterfeit money, but hey it’s the thought that counts, right?

Counterfeit $100s and $50s

Counterfeit $100s and $50s

This latest “donation” to Krebs On Security arrived via USPS Priority Mail, just days after I’d written about counterfeit cash sold online by a shadowy figure known only as “MrMouse.” These counterfeits had previously been offered on “dark web” — sites only accessible using special software such as Tor — but I wrote about MrMouse’s funny money because he’d started selling it openly on Reddit, as well as on a half-dozen hacker forums that are quite reachable on the regular Internet.

Sure enough, the package contained the minimum order that MrMouse allows: $500, split up into four fake $100s and two phony $50 bills — all with different serial numbers. I have no idea who sent the bogus bills; perhaps it was MrMouse himself, hoping I’d write a review of his offering. After all, since my story about his service was picked up by multiple media outlets, he’s changed his sales thread on several crime forums to read, “As seen on KrebsOnSecurity, Business Insider and Ars Technica…”

Anyhow, it’s not every day that I get a firsthand look at counterfeit cash, so for better for worse, I decided it would be a shame not to write about it. Since I was preparing to turn the entire package over to the local cops, I was careful to handle the cash sparingly and only with gloves. At first glance, the cash does look and feel like the real thing. Closer inspection, however, reveals that these bills are fakes.

In the video below, I run the fake bills through two basic tests designed to determine the authenticity of U.S. currency: The counterfeit pen test, and ultraviolet light. As we’ll see in the video, the $50 bills shipped in this package sort of failed the pen test (the fake $100 more or less passed). However, both the $50s and $100s completely flopped on the ultraviolet test. It’s too bad more businesses don’t check bills with a cheapo ultraviolet light: the pen test apparently can be defeated easily (by using acid-free paper or by bleaching real bills and using them as a starting point).

Let’s check out the bogus Benjamins. In the image below, we can see a pretty big difference in the watermarks on both bills. The legitimate $100 bill — shown at the bottom of the picture — has a very defined image of Benjamin Franklin as a watermark. In contrast, the fake $100 up top has a much less detailed watermark. Still, without comparing the fake and the real $100 side by side, this deficiency probably would be difficult to spot for the untrained eye.

The fake $100 (above) has a much less defined Ben Franklin as a watermark.

The fake $100 (top) has a much less defined Ben Franklin for a watermark. The color difference between these two bills is negligible, but the legitimate $100 appears darker here because it was closer to  the light source behind the bills when this photo was taken.

Granted, hardly any merchants are going to put a customer’s cash under a microscope before deciding whether to accept it as legal tender, but I wanted to have a look because I wasn’t sure when I’d have the opportunity to do so again. One security feature of the $20s, $50s and $100s is the use of “color shifting” ink, which makes the denomination noted in the lower right corner of the bill appear to shift in color from green to black when the bill is tilted at different angles. The fake cash pictured here does a so-so job mimicking that color-shifting feature, but upon closer inspection using a cheap $50 Celestron handheld digital microscope, we can see distinct differences.

Again, using a microscope to inspect cash for counterfeits is impractical for regular businesses in detecting bogus bills, but it nevertheless reveals interesting dissimilarities  between real and fake money. Most of those differences come down to the definition and clarity of markings and lettering. For instance, embedded in the bottom of the portraits of Grant and Franklin on the $50 and $100 bills, respectively, is the same message in super-fine print: “The United States of America.” As we can see in the video below, that message also is present in the counterfeits, but it’s quite a bit less clear in the funny money.

In some cases, entire areas of the real bills are completely absent in the counterfeits. Take a close look at the area of the $50 just to the left of Gen. Grant’s ear and you will see a blob of text that repeats the phrase “USA FIFTY” several times. The image on the left shows a closeup of the legitimate $50, while the snapshot on the right reveals how the phony bill completely lacks this feature.

fiftynifty

50missing

Similarly, the “100” in the lower left hand corner of the $100 bill is filled in with the words “USA 100,” as we can see in the close-up of a real $100, pictured below left. Magnification of the same area on the phony $100 note (right) shows that this area is filled with nothing more than dots.

real100left

fake100left

Like most counterfeit currency, these bills look and feel fairly real on casual inspection, but they’d quickly be revealed as fakes to anyone with a $9 ultraviolet pen light or a simple magnifying glass.

If someone sticks you with a counterfeit bill, don’t try and pass it off on someone else; the penalties for passing counterfeit currency with intent to defraud are severe (steep fines and up to 15 years in prison). Instead, contact your local police department or the nearest U.S. Secret Service field office and hand it over to them.

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65 comments

  1. I don’t think Mr. Mouse will be too happy with the review. Expect a call from his attorneys.

    • Dear Brian,

      Thank you ever so much for pointing out the flaws and deficiencies in our banknotes.

      MrMouse has personally asked me to assure you that he strives for excellence of workmanship at all times and to advise you that he and the development team are currently hard at work on a substantial re-design.

      We will be sending you a $5,000,000 “bug bounty” (in the new improved notes which we expect to be available for sale on eBay and Amazon early next week) in appreciation of your valuable assistance.

      Kind regards,

      MsFrog
      Quality Control Supervisor
      MrMouse LLC

  2. Great article!

    I was certain Mr Mouse wasn’t that great a counterfeiter. 90% of bogus currency is easily detected with nothing more than a magnifying glass and comparison to a legit bill. They never get it all correct. The quality and sharpness of printing and quality of ink is almost always a dead giveaway. Even knowing the pitfalls, it’s nearly impossible to overcome them. They only fool teenage c-store and fast good min. wage employees.

  3. I see chistmas came early this year at the Krebs house!

  4. Interesting article, as usual, thank you Brian. A scammer once handed my 10-year-old cousin a really fake $10 bill at a garage sale. The bill had the wrong president’s face cut out and glued onto it, but they did a good job for an amateur, because you really had to stare at the bill to realize it was actually supposed to be a dollar. My aunt eventually turned the “funny money” over to the manager at her bank.

  5. Fake is fake, but does it pass the spend-it-test and if the answer is YES then its a good fake as we all have notes passing in and out of our possession and virtually ono one has the time to mark, UV, magnify and magnet (a test you didn’t try) each one. if we did I’m sure we would all end up with money we couldn’t spend and that sucks!

    Im sure part 3, what happens when you pass it over will follow soon…

  6. Since the fake bills were sent by USPS Priority Mail, I imagine it should be possible for e.g. the postal inspectors to trace the package back to its source. IIRC, all Priority Mail nowadays comes with a tracking number for free, which should be printed on a sticker on the envelope/box – if that’s the case, you may be able to track it yourself.

    To be fair, if the crooks practiced even half-decent OPSEC on the sending end, it will probably dead-end at a public drop box or such, but it would be interesting at any rate to see what city it was sent from. Given the comment on your previous post suggesting that these bills are ultimately coming from Colombia (notwithstanding the large grain of salt that information needs to be taken with), they’re probably being trafficked into the U.S. over the notoriously porous southern border, which would be supported if the package’s point of origin is in a border state.

    On another note, I was somewhat surprised by how “unconvincing” the bills that you inspected were, given the glowing advertisements by MrMouse and the equally glowing reviews from his “satisfied customers”. Particularly, in your last post, one of MrMouse’s pictures proudly displayed the bills’ resistance to the iodine pen test, but when you actually tested the $50 for the video, it gave off a mostly black color that probably wouldn’t fool many (at least, it would have made me highly suspicious). Maybe the $100s do better in this regard?

    Incidentally, the bill you pen-tested in the video has two huge numbering mistakes: the “L1” in the top-left corner is obviously fake (it should be “L12”, or alternately “A1” with a Boston/A serial number). Additionally, the serial number itself starts with “L1”, which you should *never* see on a new-style “colorized” bill – these always start with two letters, denoting the series and Federal Reserve Bank respectively (the FRB should match the large letter/number in the top-left corner). Only the $1 and $2, which remain old-style, have serial numbers starting with just one letter. Granted, the average consumer will probably miss these details, but any half-attentive bank teller with basic training should pick it out (as would a seasoned store clerk).

    If MrMouse was hoping for positive publicity from your review, he’s (hopefully) in for a disappointment – if anything, it’s just highlighted the glaring deficiencies in his fakes. They’re hardly “quality merchandise” of the grade he’s advertising.

  7. Very interesting article, Brian. Thanks. Stay safe.

  8. Did you get 500 or 5000?

    What about the raised print? Most cashiers are used to identifying authenticity of a note by touch/ feel of the note. Does this manage anything close to the real?

  9. I’m curious about what impact the change to cashless transactions has had on the counterfeiting “business”.

    Even if you could make great counterfeits, it seems a little difficult to spend it, at least in the legitimate economy. Money laundering laws mean that transactions in any big amount get reported, not to mention drawing the kind of attention that would make buying a $120k Mercedes in cash make even a confident counterfeiter nervous.

    So many other transactions can’t be made with cash at all that the effort to make good counterfeits seems not worth the effort considering the added effort needed to convert it into goods or use it otherwise.

  10. TheOreganoRouter.onion.it

    My opinion , you should have turned them over to the United States Secret Service immediately

    • Rabid Howler Monkey

      The local police department will know how to contact the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Secret Service will know whom provided the local police department with the counterfeit cash.

      By involving the local police department in this latest misdeed perpetrated against Mr. Krebs, it will serve to reinforce all of the other misdeeds. In short, as the laundry list of misdeeds grows, Mr. Krebs (along with his wife) will be safer from a mishap involving the local police department.

  11. Great update on the state of the art in counterfeiting money these days. Glad to know that it’s still relatively easy to spot if you do they right checks.

  12. What shows up as false under a black light? I would like to know as i use one in my store.

    • The first video with the pen and UV light tests show what is different. Basically, the security strip on a real bill will show up as yellow when you hold the light behind the bill. The fake bill does not do that.

    • The security strips in real money fluoresce (glow) under a UV light. The color is also denomination specific:

      100: Red
      50: Yellow
      20: Green
      10: Orange
      5: Blue.

      There is also a pattern: the security thread is in a different place on each denomination. I’ve seen cool little UV boxes with the color and location just below where you slot the bill.

  13. I think that Mr. Mouse has found an excellent quality control inspector. Most likely the next production run will be of higher quality.

    I will not be surprised to read that your next batch has arrived for inspection.

    • I highly doubt Mr. Mouse has the resources or technical expertise to improve his counterfeits to any significant degree. All Brian has done for Mouse is to point and laugh at him.

  14. Mr Mouse will probably be editing the ““As seen on KrebsOnSecurity, Business Insider and Ars Technica…” line now.

  15. What puzzles me is how on earth those makers of counterfeit monies are asking 40% in real monies for the fakes. Yes, is tempting to more than double your monies but you take risks in spending them, I would have imagined fake monies of reasonable quality would cost 2-5% from the face value.
    From the previous blog of Brian I’m way off.

    • Well, I think MrMouse traffics in suckers more than anything else, including inexperienced greed heads who hope to take what they buy from him off to the nearest electronics store and run home with a haul and no repercussions. Counterfeiting rings – the competent ones – usually have low-level bill passers who make tedious small purchases with large bills, amass the change returned to them, take a tiny cut, and hand the rest of the legit cash up one level. The ring’s leaders are well shielded by design. MrMouse has cut out the middle men, giving the low-level suckers the chance to be their own “rings” without anyone to trade to the Secret Service for a lower prison sentence when they get caught.

      • Mr. Mouse has a whole internet full of low-level suckers who will be making 55% off their work, the internet has made business better and guys like Mouse no longer need “rings”

    • 2%? You really think someone is going to sell a fake $100- bill for $2?!

      What do you think a kilo of cocaine goes for? $20?

  16. Checkbox unchecker

    It’s interesting, but it can actually be a counterfeit from Mr. Mouse’s competitors.

  17. The security features of the new US bills have increased the “fixed costs” of manufacturing. If you’re the US treasury and printing gazillions of these things, you want your fixed costs as high as possible and your variable costs as low as possible, so counterfeiters making smaller runs can’t make a profit at it.

  18. NOT FOR PUBLICATION

    (Food for thought)

    Why do you suppose the printers of counterfeit U.S. currency don’t coat their paper products with Aqua Net and White Rain to defeat the “detection” pens? Or is it possible they use something they have available in their country and it degrades over time?

    Best regards and thanks for the many good reads,
    Bill

    • Not for publication? Okay, let me get the Wite-Out bottle and I’ll just paint correction fluid over that part of my screen. That’ll do the trick.

    • Not for publication? Are you new to this internetz thing? I can send you an AOL disk if you need to find out how it works.

  19. Great article! Thank You

  20. Brian, aside from the humorous gifts from juveniles and criminals, anything nice ever show up un-annouced?

    Jonathan

  21. Thanks for the nicely detailed post about the funny money. Very cool to see the details. Always fascinating stuff for a crime-fiction writer to see. And congrats on being so well thought of by someone that they’d send you $500…as you said, it’s the thought that counts.

  22. As an economist, I find this a very interesting topic so thanks loads for writing about it. Despite the tests you did I suspect these notes could be successfully “passed” at the very least 50% of the time at busy retail locations in the US. This figure probably approaches 100% in foreign locals that have huge amounts of US dollars in circulation such as Zimbabwe or Costa Rica. Then, of course, there are the several Latin American countries (and others) that use the US dollar as there de facto currency (Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, etc). It seems to me a clever counterfeiter would find a way to launder his or her “fake” cash through one of these countries fist. Any thoughts on this?

  23. I’m guessing that Mr. Mouse’s most interested customers are intending to use the funny money in countries other than the US, particularly in outdoor market stalls and shops or places where the level of knowledge on how to spot counterfeits isn’t so high or tools to do so aren’t that readily available. As was pointed out, if such bills are mistakenly accepted and the culprit goes away with whatever merchandise they’ve just illegitimately acquired, they’ll consider it a smashing success worth their original ‘investment’.

  24. Another excellent article but… U.S. Presidents Grant and Franklin?

  25. “…feature of the $20s, $50s and $100s is the use of “color shifting” ink, which makes the denomination noted in the lower right corner of the bill appear to shift in color from green to black…”

    Having checked my 20’s bills today: I’d say it’s more like gold to green on newer version 20’s bills.

    Sometime prior to 2004, on a 1996 version, it seems to be “green to black”.

  26. Question: Bottom line, if a checkout clerk is working at good speed for the job, how difficult is it to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit color shifting ink in ordinary light?

    • As a one-day-novice–having learned of it today from the article–once I saw the distinctive two colors it was a matter of how bills are held the same way to see both colors. At least in my lighting and surroundings, I could most distinctly see the black when looking at it near lengthwise.

      I picked up a stack of 20’s and was then able to go through it bill by bill seeing the color nearly as fast as I could separate them. Granted, I looked for the first color the first time through the whole stack, then went through it again holding it properly to then see the black the second time through the stack.

  27. Can someone send me $500 of real money so that I can compare them to some fakes?

  28. For the rest of us, who don’t have a personal FBI or US Secret Service liason, turning them in to your local bank is the next best thing. All you need to do is make sure you tell them you think you’ve received a counterfit bill before you hand it to them to check.

  29. If you have a retail establishment (or just like nice toys), you can but a good UV detector, with strip location & color marker, and a detector pen, for less than $20 on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Products-Ultraviolet-Counterfeit-Detection-351TRI/dp/B0053WS46C/ref=sr_1_1?s=office-products&ie=UTF8&qid=1409662217&sr=1-1&keywords=ultraviolet+counterfeit+detector

  30. If we could get those two videos packaged as a PSA and run in place of even one erectile disfunction drug commercial of the dozens run across prime time TV, we might be able to put a dent in the counterfeit trade. As it is, we’re probably going to have to wait for the semi-fictional Adventures of Krebbs cable series to expose the masses to this kind of basic information. It’s truly amazing how the investment banks who bankroll our media, and the government who are charged with fighting this kind of fraud, have so completely dropped the ball on educating the public about such easily detected crime. It’s almost as if the execs and politicos who make those decisions had some interest in its continuing (of course they don’t, as Napolean was once quoted as saying, “Never ascribe to malice what is better explained by incompetence”).

    • Never heard that quote being attributed to Napolean, but have heard something very similar as Hanlon’s Razor for a long time:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon's_razor

      • Stephen Sadler commenting on I don’t remember which site about a quote supposedly from Benjamin Franklin made this appropriate quote:
        “Ninety-nine percent of internet quotes are either misquotes, misattributions, or complete fabrications.”
        Abraham Lincoln.