Counterfeit Cash

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"We're in the basement, learning to print
All of it's hot!
10-20-30 million ready to be spent
We're stackin' 'em against the wall

Those gangster presidents"
The B 52s, "Legal Tender"

Instead of robbing or stealing directly, some criminals prefer to make fake bills - that way, not only do they not have to pay for whatever they're "buying", they get real money back as change. It can be anywhere from one dude operating a low-grade printer out of his garage to a gang using a top-end press making super-bills. Sometimes, this extends to creating fake coins as well.

In other words, "Screw the rules, I make my own money!"

When Played for Laughs, there will be a GLARING difference between real and fake bills, like the counterfeiter's face instead of Benjamin Franklin or Queen Elizabeth, or unconventional denominations such as a $37 bill.

Examples of Counterfeit Cash include:


Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • One chapter of Detective Conan had Conan end up on the trail of a group of counterfeiters who had kidnapped one of his classmates' brothers; another had an old counterfeiter who'd hidden his work in an abandoned house when his conscience caught up to him.
  • "The Hunt for Greenback Jane" from Black Lagoon: Jane wanted to create the perfect counterfeit bills, The Cartel that employed her wasn't happy with the Schedule Slip.
  • One Gunsmith Cats manga arc had counterfeit plates as its MacGuffin.
  • In Hayao Miyazaki's Lupin III film The Castleof Cagliostro, the MacGuffin was a counterfeiting set-up reputed to be so good that its output was indistinguishable from the real thing.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • This was the mystery of The Black Island in the eponymous Tintin adventure.
  • In one Lucky Luke story we meet the master counterfeiter Fenimore Buttercup, who would have been successful, had he not printed 3-dollar bills and signed them with his name! ("I am an artist! Shouldn't an artist sign his masterpieces?")

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Counterfeiters (novel and film) is a Very Loosely Based on a True Story of a group of Jews caught during WWII that were made to counterfeit pounds and dollars to weaken the UK and US economy.
  • Fredric Brown's short story "Don't Look Behind You". A man with a gift for printing is recruited to make plates to print counterfeit money.
  • Strata by Terry Pratchett has a future society that's sent into crisis when a counterfeit of their supposedly uncounterfeitable currency shows up.
  • One of several plots in The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, has the villains trying to throw the UK into crisis by pouring counterfeit money into the banking system.
  • In the Tortall Universe, the second Beka Cooper book involves trying to track down a counterfeiting operation that could potentially ruin the nation's economy.
    • In Cold Fire, Frostpine is kept busy hunting down one of these, leaving Daja to deal with the main plot.
  • Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb.
  • In Good Omens, when one printer tells another that the current fad for books of prophecies is "a licence to print money", a footnote adds that the second printer's own thoughts on that subject eventually led to his arrest.
  • Owlswick the stamp forger in Making Money. At the end of the same book, Vetinari notes with amusement that the Times has printed lifesized images of the front and back of the new banknotes, to aid people in recognition, and tells Drumknott "even now, honest citizens are cutting them out and gluing them together".
  • In the Stephanie Plum novel Four to Score, counterfeit money proves to be very important to Stephanie finding her current skip (and in the process, accidentally helping Morelli with his current case).
  • In one of The Demon Princes books, Kirth Gerson finds out how currency is verified, and uses this knowledge to scam 10,000,000,000 SVU out of a kidnapping organization.
  • The final volume of the Baroque Cycle deals with the cat-and-mouse game between Master of the Mint Sir Isaac Newton and jack Shaftoe, who has taken up making counterfeit gold Guineas.
  • Counterfeiters are a stock enemy in Enid Blyton's more Action Adventure-oriented works, such as The Island of Adventure.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Buster Keaton's character in "The Haunted House" runs afoul of counterfeiters.
  • In Lethal Weapon 4, fake bills were being cranked out in order to bribe the brother of a crime boss out of prison.
  • Rush Hour 2 featured fake bills you can only tell are fake by burning and looking at the color of the fire.
  • The Fratellis in The Goonies.
  • This was the line of business for Mark Gor and Sung Tse Ho in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow
  • During one sequence in Big Money Hustlas, the counterfeiter Bootleg Greg tries to pay his tithe to the crimelord Big Baby Sweets with counterfeit bills. Sweets's bodyguard kills him and flips his bills over - they're only printed on one side.
  • To Live and Die In LA (1985) is about a Secret Service agent who becomes obsessed with catching the master conterfeiter who killed his partner, eventually crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • The events of the Ridley Scott film Black Rain are set in motion by a conspiracy by the Japanese Yakuza to distribute fake U.S. currency via The Mafia, only a renegade Yakuza steals the counterfeiting plates.
  • In the opening scenes of In the Line of Fire, US Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) and his partner are busting a counterfeiter group. In Real Life, as a part of the Treasury Department the Secret Service also handles financial fraud issues, as well as the protection service that's the focus of most of the film.
  • In Christmas in Wonderland, two criminals plan to spread a large backpack full of counterfeit cash all over the West Edmonton Mall on Christmas Eve while the cashiers are least likely to spot it because they are so very busy however, they drop the bag over the railing, and two kids start spending it almost getting their family in trouble, and ultimately leading to the gang's downfall.

Live Action Television[edit | hide]

  • CSI (original series) ran into some counterfeit bills that the Secret Service had released on purpose—part Secret Test of Character, part to track criminal organizations.
    • CSI: Miami ran into some super-bills that were distributed from an off-shore gambling casino. (Wolfe got the hairy eyeball from Calleigh when he turned up with some on his person.)
    • CSI: NY's first season finale was based around this.
  • One episode of Numb3rs dealt with an artist kidnapped to help a counterfeiter gang.
  • One episode in Fastlane dealt with one of the Buddy Cops' father's old profession as a counterfeiter as a part of an infiltration job.
  • The BBC comedy-drama Private Schulz is based on a real-life Nazi plot to destabilize the British economy by flooding it with undetectable fake banknotes. In the series the title character recruits some Jewish prisoners to do the actual forgery (kind of like a more mercenary version of Schindler), and spends the rest of the war and afterward in various unsuccessful schemes to acquire some of the forged notes for himself.
  • The Dukes of Hazzard addresses this one a few times. This troper specifically recalls one where it turned out the counterfeiting was being done by an elderly widow which the main characters agreed to cover up, but there were more than likely more than just that one.
  • Hawaii Five-O had an episode with an attempt to foil a plot to flood the market with near-perfect—for the time—counterfeit bills. This, of course, is less "I want to get stuff without paying for it" and more "I want to crush capitalism and set up a system where I -- I mean, we all -- can benefit."
  • Bottom had an episode featuring the production of genuine £27 notes, pornographic depictions of the Royal Family, "Welsh money" (triangular), and the infamous line "That's not the queen, it's Danny La Rue!" "Well, it's a queen..."
  • In one episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm finds out that his neighbors set up a block party in celebration of their annual vacation, which obviously upsets him. So he desperately tries to go around doing good deeds to help make his family (or at least him) less despicable. Sadly, he inadvertently helps someone else steal his neighbors belongings. However, when the police arrive, he uses his eidetic memory to recite all the things that were stolen... which happen to be materials for printing stock certificates, which he quickly realizes.
  • Wiseguy. The protagonist uncovers a Government Conspiracy to ruin the Japanese economy with fake yen, and finds he's been set up to be the fall guy.
  • One episode of Hogan's Heroes featured a mysterious case that was revealed to contain dollar plates. Rather than destroy the plates, the heroes "signed" them, making them Nazi dollars.
  • At least two episodes of Married... with Children feature the issue of counterfeit money. In one of them, Al and Griff blackmailed their boss. Because Al doesn't believe there are $100 bills, he thought she tried to trick him with fake money. In another one, Al tried to bribe Bud with Xeroxed bills and even moaned that each copy cost him eight cents. When Bud asked him about the original bill, Al realized he left it IN THE COPYMAKER
  • The main conflict of Drake and Josh Go Hollywood is two thugs using a stolen money printer to get rich quick.
  • In one episode of Psych, Shawn and Gus worked alongside a government agent and his own psychic to catch an international counterfeiter. Turns out that the psychic was in league with the forger.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • One issue of Dragon Magazine included a "Top Secret" scenario in which the PCs need to infiltrate an underwater base and stop a counterfeiting plot. Promptly averted when they learn that someone dropped the plates, leaving an obvious crack across them and making them useless. (That someone is being tortured to death in the airlock when the PCs arrive.)

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Apparently, Lois from Family Guy has been printing counterfeit $20 bills for years.
  • An episode of Banana Man had the titular superhero busting a counterfeiting operation. At one point, he examines a counterfeit banknote and marvels that he'd never have been able to tell it was a fake — prompting one of his long-suffering associates to point out that it has a face value of £7.
    • The comics had a similar plot, except the punchline was a £9 note.
  • The Flintstones: Barney once played a practical joke on Fred by building a fake counterfeiting press (the bills it "printed" being real money Barney won in a contest). Hilarity Ensues.
    • In another episode, Betty Rubble gets a job as an old lady running errands for a handicapped woman. Betty was given $100 bills to make purchases no more than a loaf of bread. The bills were counterfeit as part of a press setup by the woman for whom Betty is working.
  • Happened at least once in the original Scooby Doo series. (One troper recalls Fred and Daphne screaming "COUNTERFEITERS!" with the same fear and urgency someone else might say "NAZIS!")
  • A non-cash variety appears in a story arc of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha are mass-producing counterfeit boxtops. The two spend boxtops on goods in every store that can be traded in for boxtops and crippling the economy. This arc had to be cut short due to complaints from General Mills, which was sponsoring the show.
  • The Little Rascals episode "All the Loot That's Fit to Print" had the Rascals start their own newspaper, using a printing press that they didn't know was already being used by a counterfeiter. When Alfalfa found some of the counterfeit currency, he spent it, assuming that it was genuine.
  • One episode of Darkwing Duck featured Bushroot developing a money tree that grew counterfeit bills. In addition, when the bills were placed into vaults, they would sprout into vines and carry the safes full of real bills back to Bushroot.
  • One episode of Biker Mice From Mars featured the mice learning that Lawrence Limburger was using counterfeit money. At least until they destroyed his printing facility.
  • One episode of Inch High Private Eye featured robbers who left counterfeit money in place of the real money they stole.
  • In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the first gangster victim of the Phantasm intended to launder a briefcase full of the high-grade variety in his casino before his encounter with Batman (and Phantasm).
  • While the gang on Hey Arnold! investigated a cave on Elk Island, searching for the legend of Wheezing Ed, they stumbled upon two guys who were making counterfeit pennies; when one suggested counterfeiting nickels the other acts like he's being a snob and if he wants to do something crazy like making fake dimes. The criminals however slowly realized the copper they had to buy and carve on cost a lot more than what they were trying to counterfeit...
  • Daffy tried this on The Looney Tunes Show with a poorly drawn twenty dollar bill.
  • Believe it or not, Mr. Krabs once did this at the end of an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants after a newspaper business he started went bust.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The Sims 2 University has a counterfeit money machine that allows you to print your own money. However, cops may randomly show up while you are working, in which they'll fine you and disable the machine. Also, the machine randomly catches fire from time to time.
  • Dimitri's operation in Sly Cooper 2, using Clockwerk's wail feathers as printing plates for his counterfit cash print. Gentleman Thief Sly is shocked that someone could stoop as low as printing their own money.
  • Tommy Vercetti finds himself owning a printer's shop in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. For a career criminal building an empire, it was NOT his idea to start. Doesn't mean it stops him from going along with it. Or trying to pay off his former boss with fake bills.
  • In Ace Attorney Investigations, the crime ring Edgeworth exposed was dabbling in counterfeiting Zheng Fa bills. This is why Interpol Agent Shi-Long Lang is persistant, as he's from Zheng Fa and the fake money is ruining his homeland's economy due to the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and fakes.
  • Implied in the intro to Postal 2: Apocalypse Weekend: "Guess I need to make some money, but my printer's all out of ink."

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Archimedes' famous discovery about buoyancy happened because the king wanted a way to determine whether his crown was pure gold, or whether its composition had been mixed with other shiny metals.
  • The Tasty Gold trope of biting into money to check its authenticity is Truth in Television. Back in the days of gold coinage, if the coin wasn't soft enough it had probably been alloyed with some cheaper metal, making the coin harder.
  • There was an infamous counterfeiter who was known as the Omega man. The only flaw in the coins he made was a tiny Greek letter he added to them.
  • Apocryphally a sting operation once used a machine that took in pieces of green paper and spat out perfect $20 bills. The secret, of course, was that the "green pieces of paper" were $20 bills.
    • This has been used as a practical joke and in "hidden camera" shows.
  • There have been artists such as J.S.G. Boggs who specialize in drawing the front of a US $100 bill, and then sell it as art for $100 worth of goods & services. Several were investigated for counterfeiting and/or forgery.
    • Günter Hopfinger produced about 300 1.000 DM notes that way.
  • A Canadian teenager and his friends made a fortune producing counterfeit $100 bills. They made so many of them, in fact, that many retail outlets in Canada will no longer accept older $100 bills. Canada actually had to do a major redesign of the bills.
  • William Chaloner, a seventeenth century coiner and forger, who became the bane of Sir Issac Newton's existence during the scientist's career as Master of the Mint.
  • In the UK, approximately 2.5% of £1 coins are counterfeit, totalling £363 million.
  • As mentioned in the Funny Money trope, counterfeiting was endemic during the Russian Civil War. The Karenki Ruble banknotes made by the provisional government were of such laughably poor quality that anyone with a storebought home printing apparatus could make indistinguishable copies. And they did. This devalued the currency so badly that both the counterfeiters and the mints didn't bother to cut them into individual banknotes and released them as 1x1 metre sheets to save time.
  • As in the aforementioned The Counterfeiters, releasing counterfeit money into an enemy country to undermine its economy is a popular war tactic. The most infamous example would probably be during The American Civil War, where the Union flooded the south with millions in bogus Confederate cash. Whether this worked or not is debatable. Most of the fake bills were instantly recognizable because they looked too good, but many retailers still accepted them because the Confederate Dollar was already Funny Money, anyway.
  • Counterfeit Money is a frequent problem in China. However, only higher-value notes tend to be counterfeited. This results with an odd situation where the jiao (RMB equivalent of cents) notes are much lower in quality than the yuan notes, their texture almost resembling counterfeited money. The idea is that the jiao are worth so little that nobody would bother counterfeiting them anyway.
  • An interesting variation occurred when a woman tried to pass off a novelty $1 million bill at a Wal-Mart in Georgia. She claims that she thought the bill was real, which if true means that she deserved what she got. Not exactly counterfeiting in the traditional sense, but it's noteworthy that the novelty bills in question got pulled from stores immediately thereafter. Unintentional counterfeiting?
  • In an interesting inversion, a Swedish artist coined nine 10 SEK (a bit more than 1 USD) coins, that are normally made from a gold-colored alloy, of pure gold, marked them with an almost invisible mark, and put them into circulation.
  • Operation Bernhard was a secret Nazi plan during World War 2 intended to destabilize the British and American economies by flooding them with forged notes. The plan was never fully realized and the forgeries were dumped in a lake.
  • Emerich Juettner got away with counterfeiting for a decade (from 1937 to 1947) despite the poor quality of his fakes (printed on ordinary paper, with badly reproduced graphics and Washington's name misspelled) because he printed only modest amounts of fake money and because people rarely pay much attention to one-dollar bills. (Even when people did notice, they often preferred to keep the bogus bill as a souvenir rather than report it.) He finally got caught when there was a fire in his apartment and his equipment got tossed into the street by the firemen.
  • Possibly an urban legend, but according to several sources, back before the fall of the Shah of Iran, the US was helping the country modernize their currency system, supplying intaglio presses, the fancy paper with red and blue threads in, and even sample $20 plates to show how the serial numbers worked. Then came the Iranian revolution. Some large proportion of $20s were said to be these indistiguishable "Superdollars", but supposedly changing things would have been too difficult until the redesign in 1998.
  • There's another urban legend floating around about someone who successfully passed a $200 bill with George W. Bush's face on it. (Bush does not appear on any currency, and the US Treasury Department does not print a $200 bill).
  • There have been reports that stores have refused to accept $2 bills (a valid but not commonly used bill) simply because the clerk didn't know that they were real.
  • In a case that combined this with Did Not Do the Research, Italian police seized 125 billion in counterfeit $500 million and $1 billion U.S. bearer bonds. No U.S. bearer bonds have been issued over $10,000.
  • The adage "Don't take any wooden nickels!" dates from The Great Depression, when counterfeiters would cut out little nickel-sized discs of wood and paint them so that they resembled a nickel if you didn't look too closely. One way to tell the difference was to bite on the coin; the 75% copper 25% nickel alloy of an actual five-cent piece is pretty hard against the teeth, but wood has some give to it and will allow you to leave tooth marks in it.