When you think about counterfeit money, you think only of your risk within the US. But did you know that counterfeit money scams are very common (and costly) to Western tourists overseas. It can happen almost anywhere. Modern criminals use the latest technology to defraud businesses and consumers throughout the world.
The first step to protecting yourself is to simply be aware. These bills (and even coins!) can come from anywhere - the countless souvenir shops, market vendors, train stations – you name it. When you travel, bills and coins are usually passed back and forth without a second glance.
Here are some examples of ways people have ended up with counterfeit money:
SWITCHING REAL BILLS FOR FAKE BILLS – you pay up front for a service (maybe a taxi driver in a country where they charge a flat fee), they turn their back on you then turn back around and proceed to hand you the bill back saying they don’t have the correct change. They just switched bills on you!
YOU GET COUNTERFEIT CHANGE BACK WHEN YOU MAKE A PURCHASE – they tell you they don’t accept credit cards, so you pay in cash. You find out later the change they gave you is counterfeit.
THE BILLS YOU PAID THEM WITH ARE FAKE - this scam is the opposite of traditional counterfeit scams because they are making you believe that YOU are the conman! That you handed THEM fake money. The cashier calls over some “security guards” or “policemen” who demand that you paid them in counterfeit money and you need to hand it all over to them. Fake police are a common (and surprisingly simple) scam in many places around the world.
YOU GET COUNTERFEIT MONEY FROM THE ATM – You do need to be wary of what ATMs you use, especially at shopping malls and stand-alone outdoor locations. These ATM’s can be used to skim credit and debit card numbers and dispense phony bills.
Here are some ways to avoid these scams:
Don’t pay upfront for a service
Only use licensed cabs – there are lots of fake taxi companies out there!
Familiarize yourself with the local currency – the appearance, color, and texture
Don’t use large bills for small purchases
Exchange currency at home before you travel
Call the actual police if there is an incident
Don’t hand over your money in the heat of the moment unless you feel that you are danger
Familiarize yourself with common scams in the region you are visiting
Be aware of your surroundings!
How to spot counterfeit currency
If you are in a foreign country, you first need to know what genuine currency looks and feels like. If you obtain bills from a bank at home or an ATM that you are sure is associated with a legitimate banking institution, then look at the various denominations of bills to learn their characteristics. Get a good idea of what their “real” money looks and feels like, to help you compare it to what could potentially be counterfeit bills, should you get them. If needed, you can also look for pictures and/or explanations of the bills on the internet. You’ll be able to learn some of its distinctive markings.
The most commonly replicated bills across currency types are typically 20s and 50s. Any time you receive large bills abroad, it’s worth giving them a second look. When you receive currency from taxi drivers, retail establishments, and vendors on the street, you should make it a habit to immediately check the money for security features to help ensure that you have received a genuine note. Taxi drivers are especially known to exchange counterfeit notes for real ones in giving change.
There are a few specific things you can look for to check a bill when it is passed to you.
Things to look for:
Printing – is any of the printing blurred? Bleeding? Too light or too dark? Does anything go outside the lines?
The paper – the borders of the paper money should be straight, cleanly cut and the exact same size as all other bills of that denomination in that country – and the same thickness.
Portraits/pictures – they should appear sharp and maybe even ever so slightly raised. If they’re flat, dull or blend too much into the background, it might be counterfeit.
Serial numbers – if the numbers are unevenly spaced, or not aligned right, or are all the same number on different bills, chances are good that it’s a counterfeit
Watermarks – watermarks are particularly hard to reproduce. They’ll usually appear as threads running across the bill, or as an embedded photograph or image. Most watermarks should be visible from the front and back of the note.
Polymer money – some countries have begun using polymer instead of paper currency. The material is much more difficult to copy, plus it can have security features that paper notes can’t, such as clear see-through areas. Polymer bills also have an entirely different feel to them than traditional paper money
If you do find yourself with phony bills, avoid the temptation to try to pass the bills in order to get rid of them. It is a crime everywhere and can end up costing you a lot of money and even get you arrested. In the U.S. and most countries, it is a federal crime to knowingly possess, sell, or use any counterfeit money.
Governments have gotten wise to counterfeiters and in recent years have made it more and more difficult for them to copy “official” bills (and coins) but it doesn’t mean the counterfeiters don’t keep trying. If you receive counterfeit money in payment or as change, you have no recourse with the Central Bank or police, so all you can do is keep the bad bills as a costly souvenir. So, check your change right away when it is handed to you – before completing the transaction to assure yourself that it is real. Don’t put it in your pocket or bag, keep it right in front of the cashier while you check it. If you spot any issues, give the change back and ask for different bills - before it becomes your problem.
I personally try to use credit cards as much as possible when I travel but if I do need foreign cash, I either get it before I leave home, use only recognized bank cash machines or financial institutions, or exchange with cashiers from major hotels. So far I’ve not had to deal with counterfeit money, but I do personally know a fellow travel agent who has. Don’t think it can’t happen to you! Just travel smart and do your homework before you leave! Happy travels!