How Is Forensics Used to Detect Counterfeiting?

Written by noel lawrence
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The U.S. Secret Service and private corporations use several branches of forensics to detect counterfeiting. Besides money, counterfeit goods (such as handbags) comprise an illegal enterprise that makes billions of dollars every year. Not only is it possible to identify counterfeit items, but law enforcement agencies also have developed tools and techniques for tracing the fake currency and goods back to their sources.

Forensic Lighting

Poorly counterfeited money is relatively easy to detect. The paper feels flimsier than usual, and the print quality is inferior. Further, watermarks will lack detail and may still be visible when not held up to a light source. For more sophisticated counterfeit bills, law enforcement will use a UV or black light that also is employed in many crime scene investigations. Just as this lighting can detect hidden evidence such as latent fingerprints and blood traces, it reveals the counterfeit nature of a bill. The colours will appear washed out, and light green and orange inks may appear as yellow.

Forensic Laboratories

The Secret Service maintains crime labs to detect the chemical composition of counterfeit bills. Even if a bill passes the UV light test, chemical testing may reveal its counterfeit nature. For example, iodine and acetic acid may be used to test the starch content of the paper. Merck maintains a specialised forensic lab to identify and analyse counterfeit pharmaceuticals through physical and chemical testing. In many cases, the lab determines the common origin of these goods. Reports of its findings are distributed to law enforcement.

Printer Forensics

As computer printers have improved in quality, counterfeiters have used them for generating counterfeit money as well as packaging. In recent years, researchers have developed a technology to link printed documents not just to printer models but to individual printers. The new system allows specialised software to detect slight variations or “intrinsic signatures” of printers that reveal subtle differences invisible to the naked eye.


Another obvious but effective method of tracing counterfeiters is detecting their fingerprints on the counterfeit money or goods. The forensic analysis of fingerprints is known as dactylography. Though counterfeiters usually have the sense to use rubber gloves when printing money, slip-ups do occur. In particular, if a large cache of counterfeit money or goods is located before it goes into circulation. A latent fingerprint may be the fastest way to track down the perpetrator.

Forensic Markers

A very effective way of distinguishing a genuine item from a fake is the use of forensic markers. These markers include holograms and serialised codes that may be overt or covert. In many cases, these codes reveal when, where, and how the product was made, If the code does not match the product or make any sense, that is a clear indication of a counterfeit.

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