Criminal Charges & Penalties for Counterfeit Money

According to the United States Treasury Department, there are between $70 million and $200 million in counterfeit U.S. currency in circulation at any given time. In fact, it’s probable that you have unknowingly handled counterfeit money at some time in your life. 


While most people think of counterfeiting as a crime involving the creation of false money, there is more to the crime than simply creating imitation currency. Criminal counterfeiting includes the falsification or altering of “any obligation or security of the United States.” 


Here we will go over which counterfeiting crimes are prosecuted in the United States as well as how an experienced criminal defense lawyer can defend you if you are charged with counterfeiting-related offenses. Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law in Tampa, are committed to aggressively defending anyone accused of crimes against the state or the federal government with the highest degree of skill.  


Contact Stechschulte Nell for a consultation about defending your counterfeiting case. 



What Does the Anti-Counterfeiting Law Prohibit? 


United States Code § 471 authorizes a penalty of up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine for “whoever, with intent to defraud, falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, or alters any obligation or security of the United States.” 


In addition to covering the paper currency of the United States, the law also protects treasury notes, reserve notes, bonds, and coins.  


Counterfeiting foreign currency is also a violation of U.S. law. Convictions for possessing equipment and tools intended to be used in counterfeiting foreign currency carry up to 25 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. 


What Is Counterfeit Money? 


For a bill to be deemed illegally counterfeit, it needs to be more than merely a fake bill. The currency must be intended to deceive an ordinary person into believing the bill is genuine. That means that it cannot simply be a bill that is obviously not real, like money in the game Monopoly. 


No ordinary person would mistake a small orange bill used to play Monopoly for a real United States Treasury-issued bill of currency.  


The bill will not support a criminal conviction unless it is sufficiently similar and “intended to” mislead and defraud another person into believing the counterfeit bill is genuine. If it is obvious to the recipient of the currency or security that it is not authentic, then it is not illegally counterfeit. 


Possession of Counterfeiting Tools Is Also Illegal 


Not only is it a violation of federal law to make and intentionally pass counterfeit U.S. money, but it is also a federal crime to possess the tools or equipment used to produce counterfeit bills and U.S. securities. 


In the past, successful counterfeiting operations were more complicated than they are today. Before the development and wide availability of advanced computers and printers, counterfeiters needed to design, create, and employ sophisticated etched plates and obtain special ink and a very particular type of paper if they wanted to engage in counterfeiting U.S. currency. 


But modern computers and printers are capable of producing remarkably detailed accurate copies of original official documents and even currency. In fact, the availability of advanced computers capable of producing convincing copies of paper documents caused the U.S. Treasury to redesign U.S. currency several years ago, incorporating new security features like color-shifting ink, special 3D security ribbons, portrait watermarks, raised ink printing, and micro printing to make unauthorized duplication of the currency extremely difficult, if not impossible. 


Intent to Defraud Is Essential for Conviction 


The element of “intent” is paramount in any prosecution for alleged counterfeiting. The crime itself focuses on the creation, possession, or transfer of an object the defendant knew was not genuine. The defendant must have had the intent to defraud in order to be convicted.  


Mere possession of or passing a counterfeit bill is no crime unless the accused not only knew the bill was not authentic but also that they intended to defraud someone else. This specific intent to defraud must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution.  


For a federal prosecutor to obtain a conviction for counterfeiting United States currency, they must be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, you had possession with the specific intent to defraud. 


Merely possessing a currency bill, you know to be counterfeit is no crime unless it can be proven that you intended to defraud another person. 


If the prosecution’s evidence includes the seizure of thousands of bills in a defendant’s possession, such a case would be viewed differently than if only one or two counterfeit bills were seized. A large number of counterfeit currency and/or production equipment could support an inference of intent to pass the bills by fraud. But possession of only a few bills does not support such an inference. A defendant may well have held the bills as objects of interest to illustrate what a counterfeit bill looks like. Without evidence of intent to defraud, no conviction will stand. 


Poor Quality of the Alleged Counterfeit Is a Defense 


Another powerful defense to a counterfeiting charge is evidence that the alleged counterfeit bill is unconvincing. Merely running a few copies of a $20 bill through a standard copy machine will hardly produce a paper bill so misleading that it would confuse an ordinary person. 


Skilled criminal defense lawyers are highly proficient in presenting the most effective defense based on the specific facts of your individual case. Only years of intense study of the law and daily courtroom experience prepare a lawyer to successfully represent a criminal defendant in a federal counterfeiting case.  


Partner with the Best in the Area 


It is crucial to understand the potential consequences and available defenses if you find yourself facing charges related to counterfeiting. To ensure the best possible outcome for your case, it is advisable to partner with a reputable and skilled law firm like Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, who can provide expert guidance and representation.  


Contact us today at 813-280-1244 to understand your rights and protect your future.  

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