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How to Spot Fake Banknotes

Why is that £20 note a bit smudged?

Getting taken in by a fake leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

This is true whatever you doing. It’s as upsetting to be hoodwinked by a convincing fraudster as it is to discover your grandmother’s treasured teapot is a cheap copy and not the valuable antique she thought… And it’s the same with collectable items like coins  – and banknotes.

And with banknotes, it’s no small problem. In 2015 some 243,000 counterfeit banknotes were withdrawn from circulation in the UK, with a value of about £5 million. In 2019 the face ‘value’ of fake UK notes withdrawn from circulation was approximately £10 million.

Forgery is a real problem for modern economies

Naturally enough this means it is also a problem for consumers and collectors. Banknote forgery is big business. If the forger can make copies which are accurate enough, and pass them off as originals, then they are not only laundering the proceeds of crime, they are also getting wealthy at the expense of everyone else’s economic stability.

So what to do? Institutions like the Bank of England invest huge sums in making banknotes really difficult to forge. This has been one of the main reasons behind the introduction  of polymer notes in the UK – the other being longevity when compared to paper notes. 

Retailers routinely check notes for authenticity. Collectors should too.

Is it fake? What does it look like? What does it feel like?

These first two checks are so simple that they can often be overlooked.

If the images, shapes and patterns on a banknote look smudged, or important details are blurred, the chances are you have a fake. This is true even for quite old notes and it’s an easy check to make. It’s even easier if you have a note that you know is genuine against which to make a comparison. 

A decent magnifying glass is a worthwhile piece of equipment when it comes to checking the tiniest of details.

When it comes to feel, again, your instinct may well be enough, even if you are not an expert. The texture of old paper notes will usually have more of a textile feel about them. Fake notes will seem more like paper.

For modern UK polymer notes, the feel is less relevant, although the front of the notes do have selected areas of raised print which is hard to copy – fakes will usually be completely flat. The genuine polymer is surprisingly thin with a fine smooth finish, even with notes that have been well used. The genuine polymer is also difficult to fold – as you have probably already discovered. The polymer used by the Bank of England is from a tightly controlled stock and is hard to replicate.

This may not stop all the counterfeiters trying, of course, but comparing the suspect note with one you know is genuine (eg one you’ve got from the bank) should be enough. And with polymer notes, there are multiple other features to look out for, most of which would be too expensive to make making forgeries worthwhile.

Is my old note a fake?

The older and rarer the note, the less likely it is to be a fake. But – and this can be important – the harder it will be for an amateur collector to verify its authenticity or otherwise.

For most collectable notes, you should be able to find descriptions online that will help you make a start. Depending on what you are inspecting, there are also some key features to look out for in UK notes – and in many foreign notes that were printed in the UK.

Checking UK paper banknotes

UK paper banknotes have had a metallic thread or foil strip since the 1940s.  The thread is woven into the paper, not just stuck on one side or sandwiched between layers. So, viewed from one side it might look like a line of dashes but held up to the light it will show as a continuous dark line.

Paper notes also include a watermark of the monarch’s head. Again, this will usually only be visible when the note is held up to the light, or sometimes when you hold it at different angles in bright light. 

Similarly, under ultra-violet light the value of the banknote will show up in red and green, with the rest of the note turning dull. 

Are old notes likely to be more or less likely to be forged?

Well… it depends. Forgery of paper notes has been around ever since the first paper notes were used. And the penalty for forgery, or even just handling counterfeit notes, was often the death penalty.

So for any given period in history there will probably have been many forgeries – most of which will have disappeared. It’s quite possible that a few of those that remain may be more valuable than the original genuine notes, simply because they are scarce, or perhaps because of a story attached to the counterfeiter.

The likelihood of coming across a modern forgery of a very old note is small. Those old notes that might be of high value will probably be well known, and the technical challenge for the counterfeiter of finding the right paper, matching the designs and then ageing the note to give it credibility will, almost certainly, be too great an obstacle to overcome and is unlikely to be cost effective.

As always, it pays to do your homework. There are some good resources online, such as the Bank of England’s description of the ‘old’ paper £20 note. But if you are in any doubt, get the help of a specialist dealer, auction house or numismatic community group. 

Checking modern UK Polymer banknotes

First of all, the extraordinary level of detail in the designs on British polymer notes makes them extremely difficult to copy. Have a look through a magnifying glass and you will get this point immediately! 

There are numerous technical features too to make forgery much harder still.

These include the Queen’s portrait in a see-through window, a silver foil patch with a 3D image of a crown, different coloured foil patches depending on the denomination, and very subtly raised print on some lettering. The definitive guide to what to check can be found in the Bank of England’s publication “take a closer look”. 

How likely am I to come across a forged bank note

When the Bank of England takes £10 million worth of forged banknotes out of circulation, as it did in 2019, it stands to reason that  there are still a lot of forged notes out there. Numbers should have been dropping as paper notes have been replaced by polymer, but the risk still remains.  

This should not put you off collecting banknotes! They are beautiful and fascinating and a part of history in a very tangible sense. Just exercise caution, as you would do when collecting or buying anything else. 

And don’t forget to get a good magnifying glass!

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