18 USC § 470-514


Federal Counterfeiting Laws

Counterfeiting – Table of Contents

Counterfeiting Overview

Counterfeiting is more than simply manufacturing fake money. Most people imagine a printing press putting out fake money bills that are then used to buy goods and services. However, dealing in counterfeit goods made to look like genuine documents is a crime that results in billions of dollars of losses for legitimate companies and well meaning consumers. This is in addition to the myriad of financial products that can be counterfeited and used to obtain goods and services in trade. This article will examine only a fraction of counterfeiting law in the United States Code; consult a licensed criminal defense attorney if you have been accused of being involved with counterfeiting.

Counterfeiting 18 U.S.C. § 471

Counterfeiting and fake money begins in 18 U.S.C. § 471 and says:

Whoever, with intent to defraud, falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, or alters any obligation or other security of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

Take note of the bolded terms. The crime is not simply printing fake money; it is doing so with the intent to defraud. Fraud means lying about an important fact to obtain something you otherwise would not have gotten otherwise. If fake money is printed as part of an art project, and never intended to be spent, it is not counterfeiting. Similarly, fake money that is so obviously fake money that no reasonable person would be fooled by it may not be counterfeiting either. Consult a licensed criminal defense attorney for more information.

Some observant readers may focus on the bolded portion referencing “security of the United States” and ask what a security of the United States is. Essentially a security of the United States is any item whose value is guaranteed by the government e.g. fake money.

How Much Involvement is Needed to be Charged?

What many do not realize is that one does not need to operate, or profit from, a counterfeiting operation in person to be charged with counterfeiting or fake money. Any person who assists, aids, encourages, or facilitates counterfeiting with the intent to further the operation can be held liable. This means that someone who is merely transporting the raw materials, repairing or providing a machine to make the counterfeiting easier, or attempting to exchange the counterfeit items for legitimate items, if done with the intent to further the counterfeiting operation, is just as guilty as the leader of the counterfeiting ring as an accomplice.

Similarly, accomplices face the same penalties as the principal offenders. While mitigating circumstances, like limited participation in the counterfeiting ring, can give a court justification for imposing a lighter sentence, it is no guarantee that one will not receive the maximum punishment.

Examples of Other Kinds of Counterfeiting

  • Contractor’s bonds, bids, or public records
  • Postage stamps and/or postmarking stamps
  • Various departmental and judicial seals
  • Customs documents
  • Military discharge certificates
  • Contracts, deeds, and powers of attorney
  • Foreign bank notes
  • Foreign securities

The above list is not exhaustive. However, a common theme emerges about the purpose of counterfeiting laws in the United States; the government will not allow the trustworthiness of documents and things to be compromised at the expense of the public. While common misconception assumes counterfeiting or fake money is the manufacturing of fake money, but this ignores the wide array of objects protected. This includes financial documents like bonds, welfare documents, welfare benefits cards, and more.


Penalties for violating various counterfeiting laws and fake money range in severity. However, penalties of up to 20 years in federal prison for counterfeiting and fake money, fines, a prolonged period of parole conditions, and the collateral consequences of having a conviction for a crime of dishonesty are very common. It is also very common for cases involving counterfeiting to be bundled with a number of other charges, including conspiracy, money laundering, mail or wire fraud, customs offenses, and more.


If you are accused of counterfeiting and fake money of any kind, you should contact a licensed criminal defense attorney. You may have intended the alleged counterfeit items as a joke, or were using them to perfect manufacturing techniques, or another valid purpose. There are often several issues with how law enforcement searched or seized you. A licensed Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer may have tools at their disposal to suppress the use of evidence. These include:

  • Motions to suppress evidence
  • Motions to suppress statements of witnesses to law enforcement
  • Privileges you may be able to exercise to prevent witnesses from testifying

Often these measures can greatly hinder a prosecutor’s case against you by limiting the evidence at their disposal.

You deserve to have a careful professional guide you through potential defenses and what they mean for your case.

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Igor B.
May 25, 2017
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