100 dollar bill -- real or fake?
October 2, 2011 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Is my $100 bill real or counterfeit?

I recently tried to deposit four $100 bills in the ATM. Three were accepted, one was rejected. With regard to the source of these bills -- it is conceivable that it could be counterfeit.

I looked at this website to try to determine whether the bill is real:


Points in favor of the bill:
*There are red and blue fibers that are clearly real and not just printed on. (One of them I might even be able to tear off if I had very good tweezers. Could this last fact actually be a point against the bill?)
*There's a watermark of Ben Franklin on the right-hand side of the bill.
*There's a USA100 USA100 strip to the left of the portrait.
*With regard to the rest of the points on the website, the printing/border/etc. appears to be clear, distinct, regular and so on -- but I can't exactly tell for sure.

Points against the bill:
*The ATM rejected it.
*The paper of the bill possibly feels different than other bills I have -- thinner, more lightweight. (But maybe I'm just imagining this now that it is an issue? Confirmation bias, etc.? I don't really know anything about currency.)
*The bill is a Series 2003. Apparently there was a redesign in 2004, so perhaps the counterfeiters were trying to get a date that was as recent as possible but still before a new, harder-to-fake bill? (This last might be a stretch.)


Any thoughts? Any experience with bills? Any experience with ATMs? Any advice for what I should do?

(Also, side question: Would it be immoral/unethical/stupid to take the bill to the grocery store, try to pay for my groceries without mentioning my concern? I think I'm answering my own question here [i.e., no, don't do this], but on the other hand, if it's good enough for a business to accept it, it's good enough, right?)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it passes all the obvious tests on the secret service website, I'd just chalk it up to an overly sensitive ATM and spend it as cash.

If it helps you decide what to do, keep in mind that if you do have a counterfeit bill, the last one holding it gets stuck with the bag.
posted by pla at 2:00 PM on October 2, 2011

Take it to a retail store and ask to use their counterfeit pen.
posted by litnerd at 2:00 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thinner lighter feeling could very well just be that it's been in circulation longer and therefore been touched my more hands.

If you have looked into it this much and have still found no solid evidence that it's a fake, I would personally consider due diligence to have been done and just spend it. If that's too morally grey for you though, just take it to a teller at the bank and say you want to deposit it, but the ATM wouldn't take it. No need to say you think it might be a fake, they'll check it out. If it's good enough for a human bank teller to take then it's definitely good enough.
posted by 256 at 2:01 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's also worth noting that if it has seen a lot of circulation that could also make it harder for the ATM to read it properly.
posted by 256 at 2:01 PM on October 2, 2011

I would go to your regular bank and say that you think someone might have bought something from you off Craig's List with a counterfeit bill and can they please check it for you.
posted by empath at 2:02 PM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I was 16, and a checker at a grocery store, someone passed me a counterfeit $100 bill. They bought a single roll of toilet paper, so I gave them 99 real dollars in change. I got in serious, serious trouble. Please don't do this.
posted by Houstonian at 2:02 PM on October 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

I vote for the bank teller option too.

Please don't try to spend it. If it does turn out to be fake then you've cheated somebody else. Worse case you could be the one to get in trouble for trying to pass a counterfeit bill.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:08 PM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you have a bank account? Deposit it. Let them deal with it, not some merchant.
posted by mareli at 2:09 PM on October 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Did someone at the bank check the bill with one of those pens that detect counterfeits? The grocery store clerk most definitely will, and if it detected as a fake you will most definitely be arrested.

Where DID you get the bills? I agree with above. Take it to a human being at the bank, tell them someone gave it to you and you aren't sure if it's real. They should have the expertise to help you.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2011

Trying to spend it now that you question its authenticity is trying to pass the loss on to some merchant. Not ethically OK. Trying to spend it, if they detect it as a counterfeit, also makes you look like the one trying to spend counterfeit money. Not smart.

I would go to a bank, tell them what you've told us, and ask them to check it.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:25 PM on October 2, 2011

Seriously, people, the asker has no legitimate reason to suspect it as a fake. One stupid machine wouldn't take it. Do you take every $1 bill rejected by the vending machine at work, to the bank to verify its authenticity?

And stop with the scaremongering, guys... Counterfeiting, crime; Knowingly (see my very first sentence here) passing counterfeit money, crime; Getting stuck with a counterfeit unknowingly, in this case means a de facto $100 fine, whether you do the right thing or not.
posted by pla at 2:30 PM on October 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

It is possible, I have seen two or three passed off in bars. The pens contain an iodine solution that reacts with the starch in stuff like copier paper, since there is less starch in the paper used in legit money it does not react. This is referred to as the iodine test. it might be possible to use iodine purchased at a drug store, or it might be cheeper to buy a pen. If it was me, I might try to test it myself with iodine just for the hell of it, but it is probably quicker to just bring it to the bank and have them check.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:31 PM on October 2, 2011

Knowingly (see my very first sentence here) passing counterfeit money, crime

The OP implied that the bill was from a possibly shady source. Do you want to have to explain to the police that it was unknowing when they question you over it? It'll take 2 minutes to get it checked out at the bank the next time the OP needs to go there to cash a check or something. If they got it from a store, I wouldn't sweat it at all, but if they got it from selling weed or something? I would definitely want to get that checked out before trying to spend it.
posted by empath at 2:34 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you take it to a bank branch for teller confirmation and it is counterfeit, they will confiscate the note and sent to the local Secret Service office, who is responsible for investigating counterfeit currency. They will ask you who you received this from, and you should tell them, honestly.

If you'd like, feel free to post a link to a photograph of the bill front and back and we may be able to tell you a bit more (based on the color of the ink and other features visible on a photograph). All of the counterfeit currency I have run into falls into two categories: really horrible and easy to detect, or really damn good (and consequently, almost impossible to an untrained eye).
posted by Asherah at 2:35 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
As to the source of the $100 bill:

All four of the bills came from a friend, who is a prostitute. The friend told me the bill came from a life-coach person who is helping him out, and not from one of his clients. I believe him, but only 90 percent. (This whole situation, as you can imagine, is complicated and has a lot of backstory. In addition, I'm not sure "life coach" is really the appropriate term to describe this person. A-particular-type-of-therapist-cum-family-friend might describe him.)

I don't want to take it to a bank, because I don't want the Secret Service investigating my friend. I've asked my friend to bring it up with the life-coach person, which he will do on Monday. Another step is a black-light/iodine pen. I certainly won't take the bill to a grocery store if it fails either of those. If it does pass those both of those tests, however, I think I will (per pla's advice PLUS the two additional tests on top of that) have come to the point of having no legitimate reason to think it is counterfeit and just spend it.

pla, if your position changes based on the knowledge of the source, let me know.
posted by jessamyn at 3:07 PM on October 2, 2011

A grocery store will absolutely not get you arrested for asking to see if a bill you have is counterfeit. The worst that is LIKELY to happen is that you ask a cashier to mark a bill really quick, they mark it, the mark turns brown, and you tell the cashier that yep, that's pretty much what you figure, thank you, and you leave with your fake bill.
posted by mornie_alantie at 3:16 PM on October 2, 2011

You can get one of these pens from Amazon for really cheap.
posted by babby╩╝); Drop table users; -- at 3:30 PM on October 2, 2011

jessamyn : pla, if your position changes based on the knowledge of the source, let me know.

Well, I certainly don't hold that against the source, but I can appreciate how explaining all that to the secret service could get a bit awkward. :)

Basically, I just meant that I wouldn't have given an ATM refusing it a second thought - "Counterfeit" honestly wouldn't have crossed my mind short of some other factor (such as borderline failing the SS websites simple DIY tests).

But yeah, I understand now the level of caution.
posted by pla at 3:31 PM on October 2, 2011

I meant that if the OP went to the grocery store with a cartload of items and tried to use a counterfeit bill, yes, the OP would likely be in trouble.

Would it be immoral/unethical/stupid to take the bill to the grocery store, try to pay for my groceries without mentioning my concern?

That sounds like it was the OP's original intent, no? Hopefully, he/she's been talked out of that. Just asking them to mark the bill to see is another story, sure, but still one to arouse suspicion. They can still refuse to accept your money if there's doubt, especially since those pens aren't fool-proof (see my previous answer).
posted by two lights above the sea at 3:48 PM on October 2, 2011

The OP doesn't say where they are but I'm fairly certain I've seen the pens at office supply stores, and black lights (the regular bulb kind) at home supply stores (the larger the better). I'd try both before doing anything else if you don't want people asking questions. A well counterfeited $100 is going to raise questions, and the presence of the fibers, security strip, watermark and general appearance set it in the well counterfeited range. Usually they're stupidly bad, which is why we never see them.
posted by jwells at 3:58 PM on October 2, 2011

If you do not want to answer questions about the source of the money, do not take it to a bank or retail establishment. Buy a testing pen and test it yourself. If it passes, go ahead and spend it. If it fails, take it back to your friend and ask for a replacement.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:04 PM on October 2, 2011

Those pens are useless against bleached $5 (or whatever) bills that have had higher denominations printed on them, which is why I tell all my co-workers (I work at a grocery store; we have taken a few fake bills here and there, usually they are pretty obvious in retrospect, but man do those bleached bills pass the pen test well) never to rely on them.

An ATM rejecting a bill is basically irrelevant. If the bill has fibers in it, it is most likely real, but you never know. Taking the bill to a bank and having them examine it is the best step, but frankly, if it has both the fibers AND the USA-100 strip in it, it is 99.99% likely to be real.
posted by Slinga at 4:08 PM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is it an old, but relatively uncirculated bill? I've noticed that brand new money feels thinner.

Did you verify the watermark with a flashlight or on a lamp? Same with the strip. I'm wondering if those details were actually printed on to fool casual observers. Should be invisible when viewed from any angle, and be very opaque when viewed through a light.

Another thing I've seen people do is to wet the bill. In the ink runs, it's fake.

Does it have the color shifting ink in the lower right "100"?

Does it have the microprint in the lower left 100?

If it is relatively uncirculated, the serial numbers might still have an embossed feeling.

(Click this image to zoom in for comparison.)
posted by gjc at 5:32 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good grief, do people still believe in those "counterfeit pens"? They're sold by hucksters to gullible but well-intentioned people who don't know any better.

The pens contain iodine, which changes color in the presence of starch. All that "counterfeit pens" will tell you is whether the note is printed on paper or on the cotton linen that the US uses for paper money. Any even halfway intelligent counterfeiter would know better than to print on regular paper, and if they, say, clear the printing from a $1 bill (as is a fairly common m.o., apparently) and print on a $100's image, a "counterfeit pen" will indicate that a counterfeit banknote is real.

Check for the watermark, check for the security thread, check the color-changing "100" in the corner, and make sure that the lines behind the portrait are clear individual lines. If they're there, unless it was printed by the North Koreans, it's 99.9% certain to be real and the ATM was just overly sensitive.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:25 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The security strip is hard to counterfeit. If it is visible without holding up to the light that likely points to a counterfeit bill. The real test is to peel just a little bit of the paper up at the edge where the security strip is to see the transparent strip sandwiched in between the paper. Be delicate and use a magnifying glass to avoid doing too much damage.

Perfect counterfeits can be made but will be beyond your ability to detect. Just take them to your bank and try to deposit them. If you want to be on the safe side of the criminal code you can tell them you think they may be counterfeit. In that case the worst that will happen is that you are $400 poorer.
posted by JJ86 at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2011

Do keep in mind that there are still a lot of older $100 bills circulating. I occasionally even see small-head hundreds in circulation, although they've become more rare in the last year or so. Hundreds don't get passed around nearly as much as smaller denominations, so they stay in circulation a lot longer than the others.

Even when I get cash from the bank, it's usually a mix of big-head and pastel.

Based on the number of times vending machines have rejected pristine ones and fives and the presence of the watermark and strip, I'd be completely unconcerned were I in your shoes.
posted by wierdo at 8:02 PM on October 2, 2011

Those pens are useless. You can spray starch on a bill to have it pass, but there are some other tests you can try.

-The ink that reads 100 on the bottom right reflects from green to brownish when tilted against light.

-That same ink is magnetized. See if it responds to magnet. Its very subtle.

-Scratch Ben's Jacket with your nail. The stripes are raised and should have a "bumpy" feel to it.

-That strip should reflect reddish under uv light. The trouble is that the other bills (20's 10's 5's etc) show up nicely but the 100's not so much. Wetting that spot helps.

I was lucky enough for the Secret Service to take time out to educate us bar owners on how to spot fake bills, credit cards and ID's.
posted by elemenopee at 8:04 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you might try depositing it at a different ATM.
posted by gyusan at 8:28 PM on October 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the pens are not the best test. It helps, but it could always be a bleached and reprinted one. I just hold them up to the light, make sure the faces match, and that it has the strip inside saying the denomination.
posted by hypersloth at 8:37 PM on October 2, 2011

I don't want to take it to a bank, because I don't want the Secret Service investigating my friend.

Tell them you found it in a thrift store book. I found a fifty once; it happens.
posted by mediareport at 5:04 AM on October 3, 2011

Another thing to consider is that the testing that we do to figure out if a bill is counterfeit is not testing to prove it is real, the tests are only to prove it isn't fake. It is a "proof of absence" versus "absence of proof" thing.

So the tests are to rule out bad money, not to rule in good money. If a bill passes all the tests, it is as real as it needs to be. The pens work just fine for their intended purpose: making sure the bill is printed on the correct paper. They aren't intended to prove the bill is real, just to prove it isn't one kind of fake.

(Way back when, I worked at a retail store. This was in the earlier days of color laser printers, when the toner was printed very thick. We got a $20 that didn't seem right, but had all the hallmarks of a good bill of that time, before the newer security features. The printing had the distinctive ridges that you could feel, the microprinting was there, the fibers were there. A magnifying glass showed, however, that they were actually printed on. Anyway, the bank took it. Our position was that we had done all we knew to verify its authenticity and it passed all the tests, so let the bank figure it out.)

Another thing to try is the UV thing. The thread will fluoresce at a certain color for certain denominations. Assuming this is correct, the second-to-last bullet under #7 shows what color the security strip should be. I've seen little UV currency checking devices popping up at retail places, specifically Taco Bell. You could also try places like bars/clubs that use UV hand stamps. And I'd bet $1 that your local office supply store or dollar store sells a little UV flashlight for this purpose. Pet stores also sell blacklight flashlights for finding pet urine.
I don't want to take it to a bank, because I don't want the Secret Service investigating my friend.
When speaking to the bank, you could also be mistaken or not sure as to where you got it. You have probably gotten $100 bills from numerous sources that you don't even remember, and once you put them in your wallet or the envelope in your sock drawer, it got mixed up with your other money. All you know is, the ATM wouldn't take this bill.
posted by gjc at 6:41 AM on October 3, 2011

My advice is that you do not lie about where you got the bill. If it is counterfeit the Secret Service WILL interview you about where you got it from and WILL follow up on what you tell them. My friend passed a fake $20 (unknowingly) at a golf course to the beer cart girl and the S.S. found him and interviewed him on the course later that day.
posted by kookywon at 10:28 AM on October 3, 2011

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